Introducing 2017 Debutante: Melissa Yancy

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Melissa Yancy, author of One Story issue #20 “Alas My Love, You Do Me Wrong” and the short story collection Dog Years, winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Sam Allingham

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

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.

First up is Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes, author of One Story #211, “The Elephant’s Foot.” Her novel, The Sleeping World, tells the story of Mosca, a university student in 1977 Casasrojas, Spain and her search for her younger brother who has been taken by the police and is presumed dead. We talked to Gabrielle about her research process, what it was like to publish a first novel, and her forthcoming projects.

Courtney Luk: Where were you when you found out The Sleeping World was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: I was at home in Athens, Georgia and it was about a million degrees. My partner saw that my agent was calling and started freaking out for me. I tried to keep my cool on the phone but it was hard with all the ridiculous faces he was making. I celebrated by eating oysters with my friends and then I bought a gas stove.

Courtney Luk: How did you come up with the idea for The Sleeping World? What drew you to the specific time and place?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: I studied abroad in Spain in 2007 and I was really fascinated by the tensions between generations. I lived in a city, Salamanca, that had supported Franco but, due to its university, is home to many students who are much more progressive. That tension and the enforced silence around the Franco regime provided an emotional landscape to explore grief and protest.

CL: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to publish your first book?

GLF: Very difficult and daunting but very exciting. Ever since the book sold, I’ve been oscillating between being overjoyed and grateful and extremely nervous. It’s so much effort and work—by so many people—to get a book published, much more than I knew. There’s a sense of relief as well. I love the thing-ness of books and holding the first copy made me feel very present in the world.

CL: The narrative in The Sleeping World maintains an authenticity of time and culture. Can you talk a little bit about your research process?

GLF: I focused on Spanish novels and art from the time period (1970s and 80s) and after the Spanish Civil War. Textures and outfits from Almodóvar and the photographer Alberto García Alix. I trusted my gut and what I’d learned from speaking to Spaniards to shape much of the narrative and then researched to make sure such a narrative was possible—thank goodness it was! I combined certain elements from Latin American dictatorships with Spanish history, so it was important to me that the novel not be considered historical fiction and therefore have to conform to the demands of that genre. But I also wanted to make sure that the narrative respected the time period and those who lived through it.

CL: The fantastical elements of the folklore in “The Elephant’s Foot” published in One Story directly contrast the realism in The Sleeping World. How did your writing process differ between writing these two pieces?

GLF: For me there isn’t much of a difference in the writing process because I don’t really see them as separate in terms of genre. The marvelous is almost always present in my work both because of what it is capable of achieving in a literary mode and because of my own beliefs. At the beginning, The Sleeping World seems fixed to the genre of classical realism, but as the book progresses, the ghosts of the story and Spain’s past become more and more present, shaping the narrative and calling previous conceptions of reality into question.

CL: Mosca’s search for her brother demonstrates a connection that transcends physical space, or presence, and becomes one of intuition. Mosca truly believes Alexis is alive. What informed this relationship?

GLF: My brother passed away a year before I began writing the novel and Mosca’s journey mirrors my own in some ways. I needed a sort of ritual, a descent into the underworld, to survive. Writing provided that form.

CL: What are you working on now?

GLF: I’m currently working on two novels, one has a working draft and the other is still in the hair-tearing-out generating phase. My second book re-imagines Wuthering Heights from a Latina perspective and is set on a religious commune during the Great Depression. My third is set in contemporary rural Northern Wisconsin and seems to be developing into a kind of literary mystery. I like to change settings, time periods, and styles a lot—each time I switch I think that this time period/perspective will be easier, but it never is!

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

GLF: I’m so excited to meet the other authors whose work I love and to hang out with my mentor Kirstin Valdez Quade. I plan on wearing a way-too-fancy dress and dancing too much.

Announcing One Story’s 2017 Literary Debutantes!

One Story proudly presents our 2017 Literary Debutantes:

SAVE THE DATE and raise a glass as we toast these nine 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 12th 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.

General Admission Tickets will be on sale March 20th. To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball please contact: maribeth@one-story.com.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Kim Brooks

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

This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Kim Brooks, author of One Story issue #65, “Do You Like It Here?” Her novel, The Houseguestout this month from Counterpoint Press, examines the Jewish experience in America prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II on many, often unexamined, levels: a Yiddish actress and refugee who is haunted by her past, a rabbi who can no longer ignore the atrocities happening overseas, a Jewish junkyard owner who tries to turn a blind eye, and a secret network of organizations that attempts to transport Jews to American soil. Brooks deftly explores the subject of the Holocaust through this multi-layered narrative and in doing so, showcases themes of survival, cultural passivity, and personal vs. social responsibility. Through her characters, Brooks illustrates what it was to be Jewish in America during this tense time and simultaneously exposes the unsettling ignorance and inaction exhibited by Americans, both Jews and non-Jews. A multi-faceted story of love, politics, history, and identity, The Houseguest challenges what it means to save another.

Kat Misko: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate? How was this experience different than publishing a short story?

Kim Brooks: It was Rosh Hashanah, and I was attending a family service at synagogue, something I manage to do every four to five years whether I want to or not. I remember I was there because I left my phone in the car on purpose so I wouldn’t forget to turn off the ringer. I’d been pretty much surgically attached to this device since the whole trying-to-publish-a-book process began. But suddenly I was looking at it through the window of my parked car, and I could see that my agent had just called, but then I couldn’t find my keys for about forty seconds. It was the longest forty seconds of my life. After much hysteria, I found the keys, got the phone, listened to the message, and learned that Counterpoint wanted to publish my book. After that, I smiled for about a week. My husband and I went out to dinner and drank a lot of champagne and debated which actors would play the main characters in the film adaptation.

In terms of how the excitement compared to the excitement of publishing a story—it didn’t compare at all. I mean, I basically poured four years of my life into this book, four years worth of concentration, emotional energy, professional aspirations, babysitting money. Also, between you and me, it was not my first attempt. So like many writers, I figured that if I couldn’t find a home for it, I’d have to kill myself. Except I have kids, so I can’t kill myself, so the situation was even more desperate. All this is to say, it felt AMAZING!

KM: What I find compelling about your novel is that it explores the Jewish story during World War II from a very different perspective—those that make it to America and are haunted by their past; those that live in America and try to assist overseas through a network of organizations; and even those that live in America and turn a blind eye. What made you choose to write about this subject, which in many ways is the subject of the Holocaust? You deftly handle the notion that many people in America, even Jews, chose to remain ignorant of the issue overseas: Was it difficult to generate this subtle theme of cultural passivity that courses through the book?

KB: You know, this is the first time it’s occurred to me, but I suppose that passivity, the refusal to engage, the habit of turning away, negating, invalidating, unseeing, passivity in all its forms—cultural, individual, interpersonal—has always been a primary interest for me. But this is a problem for a fiction writer because it’s extraordinarily hard to make people NOT doing something interesting or compelling or suspenseful or all the things fiction is supposed to be. Imagine an HBO crime series that begins with a cop going to a crime scene and saying to his partner, “Meh, let’s leave this one alone.”

So in this book, I suppose the breakthrough must have been my realization that sometimes what we don’t do as individuals or as a community can have as many tangible, world-shaking implications as what we do. David Wyman writes about this in great depth in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, and that was certainly a large part of my inspiration, wanting to work through in a piece of fiction the experience of the abandonment he describes.

A number of people have asked me about why I chose to explore the events from an American perspective, about the unusualness of that choice. And I always try to challenge the question a little—this idea that there is a single, dominant Holocaust narrative. There’s this tendency to simplify or streamline what happened during this time to a few monolithic facts, but I think it’s important to try to remember that this was an event that was made of thousands of millions of smaller threads, from the individual to the collective to the continental. For me, there’s as much to learn from the stories of the victimizers, the accomplices, the bystanders, the witnesses, as from the victims.

KM: The book resonates with a deep tension between two cultural perspectives and is instilled with the fear of the Jew/immigrant on American soil. You have that great line: “…was not a Jew in America but an American Jew. These were two distinct, discrete things.” Did any current events inspire elements of this novel?

KB: Yes, unfortunately, though not one particular event. Our country and culture excels at using people’s differences as grounds for withholding compassion or basic human decency. I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start: police brutality against African-Americans, racial profiling of Muslims, governors taking the time to announce that Syrian refugees need not apply for residence in such-and-such a state.

It’s funny, every so often, someone will ask my about my writing, and when I describe it, they’ll say something like, “wow, that sounds pretty dark.” And I always think, yeah, but, the world is pretty dark. I mean, turn on the news. I only know how to write about the world I inhabit.

KM: I am always intrigued by the notion of research in a novel. As a work of historical fiction, did you perform extensive research for this book? How do you know how much research is enough and when do you sit down to write? Did you continue to refer to the research as you wrote?

KB: Like many writers, I find the process of the writing itself excruciatingly painful, even agonizing. And so I’ll generally do anything I can to put it off as long as possible. As a result, I think I do a lot more research than is necessary or relevant. But I should also say that by “research” I basically mean just reading books that interest me. I don’t have the discipline to research in any organized, professional, meticulous manner. I’m helpless with stuff like that and ask my husband to look things up for me like ten times a day. When I’m researching, I’m basically just reading widely and searching for something that sparks an idea or engages my imagination, throwing aside everything else.

KM: Structurally, your novel is divided into four sections. It’s also told from various character perspectives—mainly Abe, Max, Ana, but even at times, Judith, Spiro, Field. I love novels that experiment with form and perspective: why did you decide to have these sections and multiple perspectives play off each other? In what way did you feel this enhanced the story being told?

KB: A long time ago, back in college, I remember being stuck for the first time with a paper I was writing, and my college adviser told me, think about the question you most urgently want to answer for yourself, that you also sense you will probably not be able to answer in any definitive or clear cut way. It was such good advice that I’ve used it many times since, and when I look back at writing The Houseguest, I think I must have, at least subconsciously, wanted to explore the question of how different people deal with, respond to, incorporate, or turn away from the suffering of strangers. Are there certain character traits or personality traits that prime people to be compassionate or callous? What makes some people able to face their own fears and powerlessness productively, and others not at all? Because I wanted to answer these questions, I suppose it only made sense to have a cast of characters who are all dealing with the main disruption of the novel in different ways based on their particular sensibilities, backgrounds, values.

Of course, these are things I can only say in retrospect. As I was writing, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

KM: In the same chapter, Ana is visited by the ghost of her husband, while Abe is visited by the ghost of his brother. I enjoyed how you inserted these ghosts into their narrative realities—which can be a difficult feat—as a way of indicating that the past haunts the present, which properly reflects Ana’s journey as a Jew leaving her homeland for a strange, new home. What made you choose to use ghosts in the story?

KB: I’ve always been easily enchanted by writers who are able to blend elements of the otherworldly or fantastical into realist narratives: the two that jump to mind are William Kennedy in Ironweed and Bernard Malamud in many of his stories. It’s odd, because I’m almost never interested in the purely supernatural. For me, real life is strange enough. But some of my favorite moments in fiction take place in that borderland between dream-life and reality. I often say that I don’t think there’s much difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and I’m sticking to this, but if there is one difference, I think it’s that fiction is slightly better equipped to forge into this territory of the strange and subconscious. Or I suppose I should say that for me, when I’m writing fiction, I somehow feel like I have permission to be associative, to let go of what I think I know, to invent my own rules and do what I want.

KM: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball? And most important, what are you going to wear?

KB: Good questions! I am looking forward to the whole shebang, but most of all to hugging and thanking and drinking fancy cocktails with all the friends who’ve somehow put up with listening to me fret and complain about “the novel I’m working on” for the past half-decade.

As to what I’ll wear, I can tell you that my editor (and Ball chaperone) Dan and I have been discussing the possibility of matching, long, white satin gloves. So I’d say there’s a high probability that will happen. Beyond that, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to wear the sort of high-baroque gown that the Yiddish-actress, houseguest-diva Ana Beidler would wear if she were coming. It would be fun, but I’ll probably wear whatever frock I find in my closet that fits and isn’t in need of dry-cleaning.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Cote Smith

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

This week we’re chatting with Cote Smith, author of One Story issue #118 “Hurt People” and the novel of the same name. The novel Hurt People expands on his short story, told from the point of view of a child living in the prison town of Leavenworth, as he idolizes his older brother, grapples with his broken family, and obsesses over the pool in his apartment complex—which is where the two brothers meet a mysterious stranger. Like the original short story, Smith’s novel is both grounded and suspenseful—true to its protagonist’s point of view yet imbued with poetry and tension. It’s a tricky balancing act that Smith pulls off with grace.

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

Cote Smith: I was at home playing a video game on the couch. I couldn’t pause the game, so I helplessly watched as my guy got slaughtered while my agent told me my dream was coming true. I celebrated by hugging my wife when she got home. We might have gone to the local brewery.

JH: I heard that your book took sort of an unusual path to publication. What was that experience like for you as a first-time novelist?

CS: The book was rejected the first time around. I thought it was dead and began working on another book, writing 200 pages before my future editor called and revived Hurt People from the dead like Lazarus. Everything since that moment, even the difficult and scary stuff, like editing, has been amazing. I’m lucky to have worked with such an amazing agent, editor, and everyone else at FSG.

JH: Hurt People is a full novel version of your One Story piece, also called “Hurt People.” What made you decide to expand the piece into a novel, and what was that process like?

CS: I knew there was much more to the world that I wanted to explore. The short story only covers the brothers and the mother, and gives just a glimpse of Leavenworth. Having grown up in the area, I was very familiar with that world, and yet had never seen a prison town portrayed in a story or movie, at least not from a child’s perspective. I thought it was a story that deserved to be told.

JH: A fair amount of the dialogue in this book is between the two kids—brothers—and that dialogue drives such an important relationship. What did you do to get into that mindset?

CS: I’m a younger brother, so getting into the mindset came fairly naturally, particularly the ideas of the younger sibling idolizing the older, wanting to do whatever they do, and remaining loyal no matter what.

JH: Another small thing among many that I love about this book is the way it captures the way some kids can be absolute obsessed with swimming pools. Were you pool-obsessed as a kid? Any vivid pool-related memories you’d care to share as summer approaches?

CS: I was obsessed. My uncle had a pool with a diving board, and my brother, cousins, and I spent entire summers inventing crazy pool moves and games. We had a floating volcano that we used to play king of the mountain, where one person sat on top and the others catapulted at them from the diving board to knock them off. We strung a hose through pool noodles and had a person on each side of the diving board hold the line so we could compete in an ad hoc high jump contest. Looking back, I’m surprised no one was hurt.

JH: As a movie nerd, I have to ask: are the VHS titles you use in Hurt People real? I know I could probably Google this but I’d love to hear about your selection process—either in terms of choosing real movies, or in terms of making up movies.

CS: The VHS titles are not real, but they were very fun to write. They’re based on the terrible horror and sci-fi movies we watched as kids, movies like Critters, Ghoulies, and the entire Leprechaun series. Like the brothers in the book, we watched these movies when we were far too young. We would take turns laughing hysterically in the light, when we were together, and being completely terrified when it was dark and time for bed. It’s all fun and games until you’re trying to fall asleep.

JH: So if Lieutenant Lazarus doesn’t exist, can you maybe get a development deal have it made so I can check it out?

CS: I’m on it.

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

CS: This will be the second time I’m a debutante, so I’m assuming there’s some sort of special jacket, or at least a pin, that Hannah will present to me. I’m really looking forward to that.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Matthew Cheney

Blood 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.

This week we’re chatting with Matthew Cheney, author of One Story issue #81 “Blood” and Blood: Stories, the winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. The stories in this beautiful collection weave together the uncanny with the deeply human. Instead of a dollhouse, a girl builds an asylum for her toys; neighbors, both plagued by grief, come across a phonograph that seems to play voices of the dead. These eloquent stories embody what it means to grieve, what it means to love, and what it means to hope.

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

Matthew Cheney: The day I found out I won the Hudson Prize and thus would have a book published was one of the longest days of my life. Diane Goettel, the executive editor at Black Lawrence Press, lives in Hong Kong, and had sent an email to me during her night/my morning asking if there was a convenient time for her to call me to discuss my manuscript. I immediately suspected something was up, because why would she want to call me on the phone to talk about my manuscript? But by the time I got the email, Diane was asleep and I was on my way to work. I don’t remember doing anything that day except running endless scenarios through my mind about what she could possibly want to call me about. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t want to think, “I’m finally, after all these years, going to have a book of my own,” and then have her call and say, “We’ve got these lovely Black Lawrence Press coasters and would like to send you one as thanks for submitting your weird little manuscript to the Hudson Prize competition, which, by the way, you didn’t even come close to winning.”

Of course, as we all now know, what she wanted to call and tell me was that I won and would be having a book published.

I didn’t have time to celebrate immediately, but soon enough my mothers took me out to eat at one of our favorite local restaurants, and that was all the celebration I needed.

MB: What has happened in your life since the publication of the story “Blood” (issue 81) in One Story?

MC: When “Blood” was published in the fall of 2006, I was teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire and, in my copious spare time, finishing my masters degree thesis at Dartmouth College and also looking for a new job, since I felt like I’d been working at a boarding school long enough. The next year, I was working at a day school in New Jersey and my father died. I’m an only child and my parents were divorced, so that meant I inherited his business: a gun shop. I quit my job in New Jersey and moved back to New Hampshire to sell off the shop. Thus, I had a federal firearms license for a couple of years. To stay sane, I taught some courses at the local university, and discovered I actually liked teaching at the college level, so once all the guns and stuff of the estate were taken care of, I paid off my father’s debts and used what was left of those ill-gotten gains to keep myself solvent while working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where I’m now completing my third year and studying the intersections of modernism, postcolonialism, and queer theory.

MB: You include a quote with the story “Expositions”, “This dream…is itself action, reality, and an effective menace to all established order; it renders possible what it dreams about” (Gilles Deleuze). It helps inform the reading of the story as it descends into dreamlike twists and turns. However, I felt that this quote resonated with the collection as a whole, where characters’ dreams, memories, and past fears continue to exert tangible influence over their lives once the event itself has passed. How do you balance the tension between past and present in these stories?

MC: The past as dream has been a more and more important idea to me as I’ve grown older (I turned 40 this year), because now I have lots of memories that are fragmentary, vague, uncertain. I devoured piles of Philip K. Dick books when I was younger, and now I sometimes feel like I’m living in one of those books—for instance, the experience of having somebody tell me that he and I were friends when we were in 7th grade, and I have absolutely no memory of him whatsoever, though I fully believe his memory is correct because of various corroborating details. That experience could be a missing scene from PKD’s great story “The Electric Ant” (which would also suggest that I am not a person, but an android, despite my own conviction that I am human).

The truth is, my younger self feels like somebody else when I think about him, and he also feels a lot like somebody in a dream, and also my memory of my experiences is so filled with holes that I don’t trust it. And yet I also experience a continuous sense of self, an experience that continues to amaze and bewilder me.

Ultimately, thinking about my past self is not so much like remembering a dream, but more like remembering a story that I read. You know how if you think of stories you read some time ago, often what you remember are a few details, a few images, a few feelings, but the story as a whole slips away from you, becomes more like flashbulbed snapshots than a coherent motion picture… (Is this how it feels for other people? I don’t know. I say “you” but I mean “me”.) I suppose it all results from the fact that I’ve spent my life reading and writing stories, and thus the reading and writing of stories makes up much of the content of that life. There are things from Chekhov stories I read 20 years ago that are now as vivid and “real” to me as my memories of many of the things I was actually doing 20 years ago. All of that enters into my fiction, because fiction is in many ways an ideal form to explore such ideas and feelings—in so many ways, our understanding of a story is a kind of memory: a memory of the words we’ve just read. Similarly, I often feel like my memory of my self is no more real than the memory of words I’ve read.

I should say, though, that despite all that, “Expositions” came about for a different reason. I have a contrarian streak, and I often like to try to write in ways that violate supposed rules. There’s a longstanding, and quite sensible, rule that says you should never end a story with the narrator revealing that it was all just a dream. Saying “It was all a dream!” at the end messes with readers’ suspension of disbelief and it feels like a cheap, cheaty way to end a story if you don’t have a good conclusion. But I wondered if it were possible to write a story from that premise to begin with, to do it with purpose. (Going back to Philip K. Dick, Ubik accomplishes something similar to what I was thinking about.) After all, and as the story itself points out, when you’re actually dreaming it doesn’t (usually) feel like dreaming: it feels important and immediate, like life. The same with stories. A lot of metafiction plays with the fact that stories aren’t “real”, and I’ve sometimes been drawn to such metafiction, but I also think it’s kind of thumpingly obvious, like an illusionist who says, “Folks, it’s not that I actually have magic powers. I’m tricking you.” (But again, done artfully, this is marvelous, as Penn & Teller have demonstrated.) “Expositions” is a kind of metafiction, I suppose, but instead of making the breaking of the proverbial fourth wall its big concern, it starts from the premise that we all know there’s no fourth wall there to begin with.

The ultimate effect is similar to that in other pieces in the book, such as “Lacuna”, where there is a story underneath it all that gets obscured by the narrator’s verbiage, until at the very end, having run out of words, the narrator must reveal the truth of why he’s been writing what he has. Thus there is a kind of subconscious to the story, an understory. “Expositions” is a bit different because the story’s subconscious is never overtly revealed — in “Lacuna” the understory is at least as important as the surface, they’re sort of in dialogue, whereas “Expositions” makes the argument that maybe sometimes the immediate surface itself has value, substance, and power, and that in the end, the understory is not what we really need. I suppose in that sense “Expositions” is an argument in favor of psychological repression, while “Lacuna” is a story about working through what you want to repress.

MB: Your stories also have a wonderful ability to blend the mythic and the real seamlessly—how do you balance these elements?

MC: Accident and instinct. I follow language and image a lot. I don’t actually set out to write a story that’s surreal or fantastical, nor do I set out to write a story that’s about consensus reality. Once I find the tone of a story, then the rest follows. Sometimes, my original intentions are ruined.

Here’s an example: The first story in the book, “How to Play with Dolls”, began as a variation on the last sentence of the first paragraph. I wrote a sentence in a notebook, a sentence that had just come to me one day from, apparently, nowhere: “She had always wanted an asylum for her dolls.” Later, I was at a writers’ conference in Nairobi and needed something short for an evening reading. I remembered that sentence and I sat down at a restaurant and wrote the rest of the story, eventually adjusting the sentence to be about specific characters and situations. I thought it would be a realistic tale of a disturbed girl and her dollhouse. But I was in a restaurant in a city I didn’t know with people I’d just met for the first time. Everything was unfamiliar, and it was exciting but also a little bit terrifying. I felt estranged from reality, estranged even from language, and so what came out was something that was far different from what I’d initially thought I was going to write. Thankfully, at that point I was experienced enough as a writer to trust that feeling and not try to force the story to conform to my initial conception. Often, writing well simply means following the sentences where they lead you, which is something we all resist when we’re not sure the sentences are going where we think they should. We want to control, when really we should listen, because listening to our sentences is a way to listen to our selves.

MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?

MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.

I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies. The clearest example of this is one of the new stories in the book, “Thin”, which feels the most autobiographical of any of the stories to me, because even though none of the characters’ situations are anything like my own or those of people I know, the ways that Charles fantasizes is very much my own. So if I start thinking about all of the horrible things that can, for instance, happen to my teeth … well, I end up with thoughts not too different from Charles’s, and Charles’s fate is one that I imagined first for myself in a particularly anxious moment. Having given it to Charles allows me to then go on and have other thoughts, terrors, hopes, dreams, etc. for myself. (Similarly, “How Far to Englishman’s Bay” is all about my anxieties about growing old, getting fat, and traveling in Maine. They’re separate anxieties for me, but take all those things and stick them together and thus a story is born.)

Obviously, too, a lot of my inspiration comes from other writers — it would probably be fair to say my stories are awfully writerly. I became a writer because I wanted to do what the writers I admired did. Franz Kafka is everywhere throughout the book, as is, less obviously, Virginia Woolf. I wanted to be a playwright for a number of years, and I hear echoes of Christopher Durang, Mac Wellman, and Suzan-Lori Parks throughout the book’s pages: with Durang, the echoes are tonal, especially in “Getting a Date for Amelia” and “A Map of the Everywhere”; with Wellman the echoes are of his delight with vernacular language; with Parks it’s in the structure. (I recently re-read her “Elements of Style” essay from The America Play and Other Works for the first time in at least 15 years and realized just how deeply it affected my sense of what writers can and should do — I used to read that essay over and over again when I was in my late teens and early twenties.) “Where’s the Rest of Me” took the form it did because I happened to be reading Guy Davenport’s stories at the time I wrote it. “Blood” takes some of its approach, particularly the descriptions of violence, from the work of Paul Bowles. “The Last Elegy” owes some of its rhythms to Jean Rhys. “Lacuna” is about Poe. “In Exile” contains traces of Samuel Beckett and Ursula Le Guin. “The Lake” got written because for whatever reason one day I asked myself, “What would’ve happened if Ray Bradbury and James Joyce collaborated on a story?” — though the finished story itself isn’t quite that, that inspiration is still obvious. (I’m afraid I find Joyce much more interesting than Bradbury, so his influence took over.)

MB: What does writing about LGBT experiences and relationships mean to you?

MC: On the one hand, it’s just the material of my life—I’m a queer writer with mothers married to each other and a bunch of friends who are every sort of not-or-not-entirely-heterosexual there is and/or who are transgender or genderqueer. That’s my world (plus various token unimpeachably cisgender hetero folks). In that sense, it’s no more remarkable that my stories often include lgbtq experiences and relationships than it is that John Updike’s stories often don’t.

On another hand, it means everything to me because I owe my life to the lgbtq writers I read throughout many difficult, or at least confused, years. To be aware of queerness is, for me, very much tied to being aware of certain ways of writing. Paul Monette and Sarah Schulman and Samuel Delany and David Greenspan and—well, the list goes on and on, but writers made me see queerness as something that is complex, profound, weird, wonderful even when it is so often, yes, terrifying because it is outside social and sexual norms. And of course, I’m of the generation that hit puberty just as the AIDS crisis was hitting the general public’s consciousness. My sexual awareness could not be separated from a political awareness. This is what happens to anybody who suddenly realizes “I am the them people talk about, not the us.

When I was in college, I did some stuff with ACT UP in New York, and their motto “Silence = Death” is one of the guiding principals of my writing. So while the lgbtq content of my writing is there because such experiences and people are the experiences and people of my life (warts and all), it’s also a political choice on my part to write about such material in the way I do, because this is me saying no, I will not consent to the silence that kills us. (Along with “Silence = Death”, my other favorite slogan from my formative years is that of Queer Nation: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”)

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

MC: A great friend of mine who is a metalsmith and jeweler has told me she’s going to make me a tiara. I don’t know if she’ll actually have time, but if she does, I’ll wear it. I’m not really one for fashion (I really have no fashion sense), and I often feel awkward at parties, and I’m the worst dancer you’ll ever meet, but if I have a tiara, I will be one fierce debutante!

 

 

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Charles Haverty

Haverty_webOn 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.

This week we’re chatting with Charles Haverty, author of One Story issue #202 “Storm Windows” and Excommunicados, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. In his award-winning debut collection, Charles Haverty explores the ways in which people can be excommunicados—from a lapsed Jew who devours all-you-can-eat crawfish to an alcoholic son and his absentee father. Within each story are unexpected moments of honesty that illuminate the ways in which feeling like an excommunicado and an outsider make us human.

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

Charles Haverty: I was at my desk, going through the final page proof of “Storm Windows” for One Story. It was January and snowing, and my wife was in San Francisco. Our car had been in an accident (I’ll spare us all the details) and I got a call from an insurance adjuster informing me that he was declaring it a total loss. Midway through the conversation, the caller ID showed a call from the University of Iowa Press. I took it and was told that my collection had won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and would be published in the fall. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh awayeth. I called the insurance guy back, contacted some people who’d had lots to do with the writing of those stories, and later, after salvaging license plates, registration, and whatnot from the wrecked car, I went to dinner with my friend Lara.

AA: The South plays a prominent role in several of your stories, but I see that you grew up in Queens. Is the South a place of special meaning for you, or just a place of interest? How did it come to be the setting for so much of your work?

CH: This is a complicated question. I was born in Queens (where my father was born and raised) but grew up on Long Island and in the suburbs of Chicago. My mother was born in St. Louis, and I had relatives who lived on a farm in Hickory Ridge, Arkansas, and I spent a healthy amount of my childhood in both places. When my wife and I got married, her parents were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and we drove down there frequently. So it was more or less impossible not to set at least one story there. Another answer is that I’m someone who’s always been moved to tears by Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”), and the ending of Absalom, Absalom!, where Shreve asks Quentin, “Why do you hate the South?” and Quentin says (“quickly, at once, immediately . . . panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark”), “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” I could go on and on here, but it’s probably a mistake to think too hard about questions like this.

AA: One of my favorite stories in the book was “Whan That Aprill.” It struck me because there’s something a bit more dystopian about it, a world slightly more mythical than the other stories in the collection. Can you talk about your writing process for this piece?

CH: “Whan That Aprill” might be the earliest story in the book and took the longest time to write. It began, I think, with the image of the abandoned Ferris wheel and led to an accretion of images—the strawberries, the doll’s head, the broken bits of porcelain—but over time I found it all so dark that I had to put it away. I didn’t quite understand what the story was about. After the events of September 11, 2001, this came more into focus, and the atmosphere of those days bled into those pages. I finished a draft, put it away for a couple years, and spent the better part of a summer rewriting it. I’ve always felt variously uneasy about this story, so it’s gratifying to hear that you liked it. It also happens to be my wife’s favorite.

AA: Three of the stories in the collection are clearly linked, and I had a fun and interesting time imagining how the others might fit into a narrative about Lionel— one that he imagined, maybe, or one that he doesn’t know about. Can you talk more about the format of this collection, and why you chose to include those three linked pieces among the stand-alone stories? 

CH: Overall, I was shooting for variety of subject matter, setting, point of view, tense, age, gender, etc., and hoped that those Lionel stories, placed where they are, might give the collection a sort of spine or sense of progression. You know that Jesuit business, “Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man”? Those three stories let me play out that notion by following Lionel’s progress from his Catholic school boyhood through middle age. The simpler truth is that it’s always fun to write about Lionel. He allows me the freedom to live a sort of alternative life on paper in a way the specific demands of other stories might not. (“Storm Windows” is a Lionel story, and even as we speak, I’m working on another.) So your imaginings about his imaginings are quite on the mark.

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

CH: I’m a very shy person (which might be one of the reasons I write), but I welcome the chance to meet and thank Will Allison and Hannah Tinti—and, of course, you.

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.