Introducing One Story’s 2013 Staff Debutantes: Marie-Helene Bertino, Elliott Holt & Julie Innis

One Story is run almost entirely by volunteers. Many of these volunteer readers and editors are also writers! Since our last benefit, two former and one current member of our staff have made the leap and published their first books. So we will be taking a moment at this year’s Debutante Ball on June 6th to acknowledge these three lovely and talented ladies: our own Staff Literary Debutantes: Marie-Helene Bertino, Elliott Holt & Julie Innis. Let’s meet them now!

Marie-Helene Bertino, Safe as Houses (University of Iowa Press)

safeashousesMarie-Helene Bertino was a reader, an editorial assistant, and later an associate editor at One Story. For the past three years, she’s been teaching at One Story’s Summer Workshop for Writers. Her collection of short stories, Safe As Houses, was published in October of 2012 by the University of Iowa Press.  She received a Pushcart Prize in 2007 and a Pushcart Special Mention in 2011.  Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pushcart Prize Anthology XXXIII, North American Review, Mississippi Review, Inkwell, The Indiana Review, American Short Fiction, and Five Chapters, among others.  Many of the stories in Safe as Houses are set in a supernatural Philadelphia, where everything that happens seems to come out of left field and keeps the reader guessing.  Bret Anthony Johnston has said of the book: “From the first remarkable story to the last, the author takes risks that left me gasping and applauding.  This is affecting and inventive work, work that breaks your heart with humor and mends it with compassion.”

Elliott Holt, You Are One of Them (Penguin Press)

youareoneofthemElliott Holt was a reader for One Story, and later a contributing editor. Her first novel, You Are One of Them is a moving debut, that the NYTBR called “a hugely absorbing first novel from a writer with a fluid, vivid style and a rare knack for balancing the pleasure of entertainment with the deeper gratification of insight.” Holt was born and raised in Washington, DC, but has lived in cities all over the world.  While working, she maintained a full time job in Manhattan as well as participating in an MFA program at Brooklyn College.  You Are One of Them confronts the way we define ourselves and the secrets we keep in the process. Holt highlights the pain of a broken friendship, evoking emotions in those of us who know what lengths people will go to take back what they have lost. Editor in Chief Hannah Tinti said of book: “Like the cold war, this remarkable novel revolves around hidden truths and unreliable friendships. Elliott Holt skillfully draws out her characters’ secrets, delivering a well-wrought tale of international and emotional intrigue.”

Julie Innis, Three Squares a Day With Occasional Torture (Foxhead Books)

3squares.cover.1.0312Julie Innis is a current reader for One Story. She lives in New York, but is originally from Cincinnati. Her work has appeared in Post Road, Pindeldyboz, and Gargoyle, among others, and has received several awards and mentions including two Pushcart nominations, a Glimmer Train Top-25 New Short Fiction designation, and, most recently, a Notable Story recognition in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012 anthology.  Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture is Innis’s first book, about ordinary people with extraordinary problems. Christopher Allen described these remarkable stories by saying: “Humor is like a tight-rope made of razor blades. Some writers who try it come away with more cuts than it’s worth. Innis dances on razors. And she does this by being generous to her characters, indulging their whims, allowing them to be bizarre in their humanity, human in their absurdity.”

We’re so proud of our One Story Staff Debutantes! And we look forward to raising a glass to them on June 6th. Won’t you join us?

Introducing 2013 Debutante: Douglas Watson

theeraofnotquiteOn June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we’ve been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

For our final debutante interview, we’re talking to Douglas Watson, author of the collection The Era of Not Quite, published by BOA Editions and winner of their Short Fiction Prize. The Era of Not Quite includes “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero” published in One Story last month.

Douglas Watson’s debut story collection is chock-a-block with deaths, births, sea and land voyages, excursions to the library, philosophical asides, and things like wolves. People fall in and out of love, walk in and out of buildings, take two steps forward and two steps back. Futility is a theme of the book, but so is the necessity of trying. Recently, Freebird Books in Brooklyn hosted a book launch event for Watson, and as a finale, Doug sang a song he’d written for the occasion, “The Era of Not Quite,” accompanied by Anthony Tognazzini on percussion and One Story’s own Hannah Tinti on ukulele. Click below for the musical madness, then read on about cheese, secrets, and fairy tales.

How did you celebrate when you found out you had won the BOA Short Fiction Prize and your first book was going to be published?

I think I did a kind of off-kilter jig and grinned up at the tops of some skyscrapers. They didn’t seem as big as the news about my book! I’d been playing phone tag with Peter Conners, the publisher at BOA Editions, and I was on my coffee break at work when we finally got each other on the phone. I remember it all very clearly: it was a warm night, and I was working overtime copyediting a royal-wedding-themed special issue of Time magazine. I’d prefer not to measure the readership of my book against the readership of that special issue. Anyway, so I did a jig, swigged some coffee, and then walked back to the Time & Life Building and all this copy about Kate Middleton and what’s-his-name. No subject on earth interests me less than British royalty, but still, it was a very good night.

The final story in your collection, “The Messenger Who Did Not Become a Hero”, is One Story issue #177. I know that you published this story with us only months before your book release but has anything happen in the time between your publication in One Story and the release of your book?

Gosh, so much has happened just since One Story accepted my story for publication. It’s amazingly good timing for me, having the story come out just before the book comes out. I don’t know of another literary magazine that can match One Story‘s reach. If there are other such magazines, I want them to know that I love them and look forward to working with their editors! Anyway, I’ve heard a lot of nice things from readers about the “Messenger” story. And I’m very excited to do a jig at the Debutante Ball.

Each of your stories seem to be not-quite fairy tales. When it comes to storytelling and fairy tales, do you have any favorites or influences?

The not-quite-fairy-tale thing is something I just fell into. It’s been a million years since I’ve read any of the old fairy tales. Of course I would recommend Donald Barthelme’s retelling of Snow White to any reader, even someone with no sense of humor and a dwarf allergy. But Barthelme was doing something different; he brought a completely modern, or I suppose postmodern, voice and aesthetic to an already existing tale, whereas I discovered, sort of by accident, that I simply liked writing in the style of a fairy tale, modernity and postmodernity be damned.

I think when you write a fable or fairy tale, you have the ability to at once be a bit silly and also go more directly at the big stuff, as in: “There once was a girl who was sad. Why was she sad? Well, it was because her whole family had died in a train accident. She didn’t smile for the next ten years, but then one day at the market…” Etc. I don’t know if that made any sense. By the way, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is one of my favorite books. I don’t know if one would call it a book of fairy tales or what exactly, but it is very, very good. And then there are George Saunders’ Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil, but those are not exactly fairy tales either. Some of Lydia Davis’s stories have a kind of fairy-tale flatness to them. There are so many great books out there, I don’t know why we try to write new ones.

In your story “Against Specificity”, you write, “Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents.” Doug, what does Indiana represent?

To me it represents a single long, boring drive I took across the state in the spring of 2004. I was visiting a few campuses as a prospective MFA student, and the drive west on I-70 from Columbus, Ohio, where I eventually enrolled, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I mean, life can be dull, but this was taking it to another level. I grew up amid hills in Pennsylvania, and as I drove across Indiana, I got excited every time I-70 went up twelve feet in order to cross over another road. “Woo-hoo! Look at the view!” I would say. Of course, I’d started my drive in Boston and had spent entirely too many hours alone in the car by the time I got to Indiana. So I was crazy, and the country was crazy—the 2004 election season wasn’t a calm time, if I remember correctly. The four American contractors who were killed and mutilated in Fallujah—that happened during my drive, and for the first time in my life I found myself tuning in to the Rush Limbaugh radio show. Limbaugh was out sick that day or something, but his stand-in said something like, Let’s kill a thousand of them for every one American who died. So everything was horrifying, and there I was in Indiana, and I remember feeling as if pro-Bush Indianans at rest stops were squinting at my Massachusetts plates and trying to decide whether to beat me up or just beat up my car. That stuff was only in my head, of course, but to a writer, that just makes it all the more real.

Anyway, none of this has anything to do with what Indiana represents. I actually don’t know what it represents, since I’ve basically never been there. I am sure that any two Indianans will give six different answers as to what their state represents.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball on June 6th?

Meeting the other debutantes and eating lots of cheese—I assume there will be cheese. Also there is the matter of that jig… But for real, I’m very pleased to be able to acknowledge the great debt my writing owes to my mentor Michelle Herman, who teaches at Ohio State. I’ve had a number of great writing teachers over the years, but Michelle is the one who said what turned out to be the most important thing for me to hear at a crucial time in my development as a writer. It’s something every novice writer ought to take into consideration. I think we’ve run out of room in this Q&A, but I promise to reveal the great secret to anyone who buys a ticket to the Debutante Ball. I’ll be the guy doing a jig over by the cheese table.

Get your WORD on at the Debutante Ball!

Bnb (640x536)At this year’s Literary Debutante Ball, we’ll be doing something new: hosting a WORD SALE!

Over 50 authors have “donated” words to One Story for this project. Each word will be beautifully printed and ready for framing, and will come with a definition, as well as a SECRET SENTENCE written by the author. Junot Díaz, Karen Russell, Tobias Wolff, Jonathan Lethem, Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, Meg Wolitzer, Chris Ware, Aleksander Hemon, Nathan Englander, Jennifer Egan, Sloane Crosley, Jim Shepard, Andrea Barrett, Amy Hempel, Etgar Keret, Aimee Bender and many, many more will be taking part.

We’ll also have words & sentences available from your favorite “classic” authors, such as Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Virginia Woolf, George Eliot, Jane Austen and Willa Cather. As well as something no sentence can live without: PUNCTUATION!

Prices will range from $10-$250. All proceeds will be donated toward One Story’s mission: to celebrate the art form of the short story and support the writers who write them.

We’ll have a photo booth, so people can form their own “sentences” with friends, using the words and punctuation they’ve gathered throughout the night. So get your WORD on. It’s going to be a fantastic evening for verbophiles, and tickets are almost sold out! Buy yours today.

Introducing 2013 Literary Debutante: Ethan Rutherford

On June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead-up to the event, we have been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.P.Coffin

This week we’re chatting with Ethan Rutherford, author of the collection The Peripatetic Coffin, which was just released by Ecco. Ethan made his One Story debut in 2011 with “Summer, Boys.”

In The Peripatetic Coffin, the stories are thematically linked with a kind of claustrophobia, that makes the reader feel as though they can barely breathe—in the best way possible. All of the stories seem to follow the idea of closeness, be it physical (in a submarine, or a huge ship trapped in ice) or emotional (two boys as a separate, however deeply entangled, main character). Somehow, Rutherford manages to tie it all together. Another One Story author, Paul Yoon, described The Peripatetic Coffin as: “Moving seamlessly from one world to another, from oceans to a snow-covered meadow to the rooms of childhood, each story is a vessel of longing and possibility . . . . this book is a revelatory feat of the imagination, and The Peripatetic Coffin is an incomparable, vital debut.” We’re grateful that Ethan took the time to answer a few questions with us.

Where were you when you heard that your book had been accepted for publication?
I was at work, sitting at my desk, trying to get through as many work-related emails as possible, trying to ignore the phone. It was December, right before the holidays. This being Minneapolis, in winter, it was like the Ice Planet Hoth outside. The phone kept ringing, and finally I answered it, and it was Sarah Burnes, my agent, with the good news, and my day was just happily obliterated. All of my work emails, for the rest of the day, were full of cheer and exclamation points, which, I’m sure, was confusing to people on the receiving end, who were probably mad at me about something.

Which of your stories in The Peripatetic Coffin was the most interesting to write?
Well, each story has its own problems to wrangle (the settings in these stories are varied, some historical, some contemporary, some sci-fi), and figuring out how to approach the particular challenge a story presents is always interesting for me. It’s not that a story is a puzzle you are trying to solve, but you are trying very hard to make a story specific, and true to the world and characters you’ve put down. I had the most fun writing “Camp Winnesaka,” a story in which the narrator, a camp counselor, is struggling to issue a mea culpa without actually taking any responsibility for his role in the summer’s massive camper casualty rate. The blend of earnestness, incompetence, limp metaphor, and self-deception required on his part was pure pleasure to put down on paper.

A common theme in these stories that I found to be consistently apparent was a slow and steady suffocation—for instance the men aboard the Saint Anna, and even in Summer, Boys—we find the characters in a situation in which they feel either a physical or emotional claustrophobia. What was your fascination with this theme?
Well, I may be the worst person to try to answer that question (maybe a therapist could, if, since Arrested Development, I didn’t have a fear of therapists). Broadly speaking, though, characters tend to reveal themselves in interesting ways—they begin to understand what they either are or are not capable of—when they are under the kind of pressure you mention above. When the walls are closing in, and the normal exits are blocked, the question becomes: what am I going to do now? And what a character does at that moment, or what he or she feels—as the physical or emotional claustrophobia (ideally both) sets in and takes hold—is revealing. That’s the moment I’m interested in, both as a reader, and as a writer. Sometimes this comes as the submarine is sinking, or as the Arctic ice is swallowing your ship; other times, as in “Summer, Boys,” it comes as a character begins to understand how fragile and fleeting a particular kind of immersive friendship can be.

You’ve said that the characters in your stories end in your mind as their time on the page does, but do you feel the story itself is ever truly finished?
For me, yes, the story is done when it’s out in the world. The hope, of course, is that people will read it, and like it, and that in some small way the story will produce an emotional churn in the reader. But all of that is out of my hands. I wish the stories well, but I’m done with them, and they’re done with me. It’s a fond farewell, though. And always a bit of a relief.

Are you working on anything new now?
I am! A novel! Which, well, the less said about it, probably the better. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out. Right now it’s about eco-terrorism. But tomorrow, it might be about the Seattle Super Sonics. I’ve got more clarity than that on the project, I suppose, but right now, in these early days, it does feel like thematic swoops and veers are still very much in play.

Why did you choose the title The Peripatetic Coffin? Does the word peripatetic not only relate to the story about the submarine (as that connection is obvious) but speaking towards your collection as a whole, sort of how the stories fall apart and come together and are still swimming around together in a literary fishbowl?
Ha! Yes, it does—or should—work for the collection as a whole. I’m interested in endings. In the title story, the end for the characters is contrasted with the improbability and determination and cheerful fatalism demonstrated by that small Civil War submarine (which was called “The Peripatetic Coffin” by the people who operated it) as it wrote its way into history—and the story then hopefully becomes about the ways in which characters confront the “claustrophobia” you mention earlier, and their attempt to transfer the whole experience into something more personally recognizable. And I think in that sense, the phrase could apply to all the stories in the collection. But I like how you said it better, and am happy to have that be the official word.

What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th?
Well, the amazing writer Manuel Gonzales answered this question by saying he was looking forward to buying a kick-ass ball gown, and so I’m looking forward to talking to him about that, to make sure we don’t show up with the same gown, which would be embarrassing. Other than that: I’m looking forward to being there with my editor, Libby Edelson; I’m looking forward to the music; I’m looking forward to seeing everyone and saying hello to the One Story folks, whom I’ve long admired, but never met.

Most of all, though, I’m looking forward to celebrating One Story itself—the real belle of the ball here. I will be raising many glasses to them, and will have to be carried out at the end of the night.

Issue #178: Indulgence

178-cover (457x640)I’ve been a fan of Susan Perabo ever since Robert Sean Leonard performed her story “Counting the Ways” on Selected Shorts, so it is a great pleasure to welcome her into the One Story family. We’ve just heard that Selected Shorts will be recording “Indulgence” in the coming season as well, so: keep your dial tuned to your local public radio station! And now: I’ll turn the mic over to contributing editor Will Allison, who brought this marvelous story to our pages. -HT

In 2007, the Motion Picture Association of America announced that it would start to take into consideration depictions of smoking when it rated films. Fortunately, the story in our latest issue—Susan Perabo’s “Indulgence”—isn’t subject to the MPAA’s scrutiny. Otherwise, it might be rated X for excessive smokiness.

This was no accident on the author’s part. “I wanted to write a love letter to cigarettes,” says Perabo in our interview with the author. “I wanted to write a story that genuinely, without irony, celebrated smoking.” (Spoiler alert: read the story before you read the Q&A!)

But “Indulgence” is much more than a delightfully transgressive paean to cigarettes. It’s also one of the most moving stories about death and loss that I’ve read—one that still leaves me choked up every time I read it, even though I know what’s coming.

Much of the story’s power derives from its unexpected ending. But this is no trick ending. Early on, Perabo quietly sets about preparing the reader for what’s ahead. That the ending still comes as a surprise is a tribute to the subtlety of her technique.

The result is one of those wonderful endings that is at once surprising yet inevitable in retrospect. “Indulgence” is a story you’ll want to read twice.

Introducing 2013 Debutante: Leigh Newman

978-1-4000-6924-8(1).JPGOn June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we have been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

This week we’re chatting with Leigh Newman, author of the memoir Still Points North, recently published by Dial Press. Leigh Newman made her One Story debut back in 2005 with her story, “Listening for Marianne.”

While the spotlight setting of Leigh Newman’s memoir Still Points North is the Alaskan countryside where she spent summers with her father, her story is one that anyone who’s navigated the choppy waters of adolescence will appreciate. Written with the clear eyes of an adult and the boundless elation of a child at heart, it’s a moving and vivid account of one woman fording the rivers of her own family history and living to tell the tale.

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

I was on the Brooklyn Heights promenade. I had a 3 week old newborn in a sling and a 3 year old son in the stroller. Both were very mad that day and badly positioned in their little fabric child-prisons. And yet…I chose to pick up the phone. As they wailed and fussed and raged, my agent quickly and professionally mentioned that three editors wanted to talk to me. My face fell off. I was unemployed, under-financed and totally over-hormoned. I wanted to weep but I don’t do that in public. Instead I talked to my agent for 3 minutes, hung up, and kept marching down the tidy brick path home. There, in our living room, I did a dance with my impressionable young children that’s best left to the imagination. Think of a gnashing of teeth, only joyful and with the occasional botched cartwheel. We topped it all off with a truly astonishing amount of gummy worms.

2. This is a memoir, rather than fiction. How did you decide to write it and do you approach the two mediums differently?

Failure can force your hand—right into a success or another star-spangled, soul-disfiguring failure. Because, of course, there’s momentum in failure, a rolling desperation that occurs in its wake—which either inspires you to do better or to just dive faster and more extravagantly towards to the bottom. Still Points North came directly out of that feeling. Prior to it, I had spent four years on writing a novel, and that novel was a bust. I couldn’t fix it and I was too afraid to start a new one and so I did the one option left, which is an option that most Alaskans are familiar with: do the thing you very much don’t want to do that might just save your life. In the wilderness culture that I grew up with, this is a literal sentiment: you have to dive into the cold fast-moving river and save the floating-away floatplane or lie there in a tent without moving until the bear attacks or wanders off. But here, it was metaphorical. I had to write a book I didn’t want to write or end the whole idea of writing. ….And so I wrote… all the while, screaming yuck. Who wants to talk about themselves? Not me. Not the people I grew up with. But as it turned out, I had a lot to say about king salmon and grizzlies and alders and homemade fish smokers and brave loving complicated families that fall apart. Because whether it’s a memoir or novel, there’s not really a difference in terms of how you tell the story. What you tell is different, because it’s life not fiction. But the way you tell it is the same. You show it, except when you have tell it. You get specific. You keep the good stuff and cut the rest.

3. The book spans a wide swath of time, from the summer after your parents’ divorce, when you’re eight, to when you’re grown up with children and a family of your own, with your relationship with your father acting as the through-line. What was it like to revisit these different periods of your life? Were some more fun or more painful than others?

Well, the parts about our unpressurized single-prop plane getting up to 20,000 feet and almost falling out the sky or about our dinky raft getting swamped in a rapid-filled canyon (with us in it) or about the bear that paid me an early morning visit were fun to write. There is joy to all that always-almost-dying that you do in the wilderness—provided that you survive. Writing about my dad and I tromping around in hip boots and fishing was also fun. I miss that life. The parts about my family falling to pieces, however, my own marriage falling to pieces, my mother’s breakdown and her other assorted mental issues were not so fun. I don’t want to sound flip. But they were not fun at all. I write at dawn, before anybody gets up and those were some dark mornings. Probably what kept me going was a maniacal feeling I had that if you write a memoir, you have to go all the way, otherwise the risk of exposure isn’t worth it. And there was a wee bit of grace. The people I was writing about loved me, and I loved them. I was lucky in this, despite all the mess and upheaval. And as I wrote, I began to fall in love with them, to fall in love with all of my family in the deep and all consuming way we usually reserve for romance.

4. There are beautiful descriptions throughout of the Alaskan wilderness. You live in New York now, a very different sort of place. Did you do anything particular to get yourself into that setting while writing? Revisit old pictures or take trips back?

I think I’m always in that setting, even when my body is somewhere else. So I didn’t look at anything except the slideshows in my mind. In fact, I was afraid of looking at anything—memoirs in general, or books of any kind about Alaska or websites about Alaska— because I suspected I would end up being so impressed with other people’s flora and fauna and nouns and adjectives and experiences, I would end up writing and thinking like them.

5. What was the revision process like for you? Do you have any advice for writers currently working on a book manuscript?

I had a great editor. She is brilliant and her name is Jen Smith. She did what every writer wants: she edited. And her process was show up at lunch and sort of explain very casually over midtown sushi what was going right…and wrong. She could do this in about 3 sentences. That’s all she needed. First the beginning was working, but the rest not so much. Then the beginning and end were working, but the middle not so much. And then I began working on the middle….. seasons changed, saplings turned to trees, little baby ducks grew up into fat big ducks, icebergs melted. And still the middle was not working. In fact, it was horrible. So Jen and her assistant Hannah (also an awesome editor) suggested we cut it. Just pull it out. And so….we did, we pulled 120 pages out of the center of the book. What was left were two stories—the love letter to my dad and the love story of me and my husband—positioned side by side, which let the reader make the connection between the two, without the book having to explain things overly. I love that! It’s perfect, which I can say because I didn’t think it up and I can’t take any credit for it. So listen to your editor. One other rule: read her comments, wait 3 days, then respond. On day one, they seem like madness. On day three, genius.

6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Deb Ball?

The stairs. I find great comfort in NOT taking that elevator.

Introducing 2013 Literary Debutante: Ben Miller

RiverBendChronicle3DforLookoutOn June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead up to the event, we have been introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

This week we have the pleasure of talking to Ben Miller, author of the non-fiction book River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa, recently published by Lookout Books. Ben Miller made his One Story debut back in August 2002 with Issue #7, “The Man in Blue Green,” published during our first year.

Through his energetic, lyrical prose, Miller employs a brutal honesty to explore and uncover emotional truths about family and the self that many would never dare to reveal. His wry humor touches at the tragic in both life and memory in a way that makes it ever more visceral for the reader. What makes his words so potent beyond the beautiful language is his willingness to embrace the truth in all its beauty and its flaws, thereby echoing the shifting landscape of Iowa, where Miller spent his childhood.

1. You’ve been published in many journals, magazines and anthologies. How did it feel to recently publish your first book, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa? How was this experience different? How did you celebrate?

Journal publications were one of many vital stepping stones on the circuitous path leading to the publication of River Bend Chronicle. In particular, Sven Birkerts and Bill Pierce of AGNI, Jackson Lears and Stephanie Volmer of Raritan, Robert Fogarty of Antioch Review, and Ben George and Emily Smith of Ecotone, supported this unusual nonfiction project at crucial junctures. And Steven Church of The Normal School also was there when it counted. These journals placed me in contact with editors who had helpful things to say, and the claws of expert chickens. They scratched productively at the urban sprawl of my sentences! The journals were a reality check for a project cruising–as I often put it to myself on lunchtime walks–into deep waters. It took more than ten years to create the material from which RBC was culled (though I often round the figure down to a nice crisp decade) and I can see now that I was preparing to grapple with complex urban Iowa subjects long before the writing began. The completion of the project involved so much more than word-mongering, submitting sections as they were finished, and reading everything from Carlyle and Sebald to Ozick and Wm. Hazlitt. It also demanded a re-wiring of the self to create a person determined and tough enough, as well as tender and open enough, to spin out lines into the murky depths of experience where the writer’s treasure awaits. And that arduous initial stage of pre-writing work would not have been possible had I not benefited from the full support of my spouse–distinguished poet Anne Pierson Wiese (and Deb Ball escort)–who did all in her power to aid my effort to do the personal work that needed to be done. (We’ve both worked full time jobs for nearly twenty years while pressing forth with our literary life. Proof positive that equals can mentor each other, too!) And when, after all these various stages of various sorts of work, I finally found the perfect publisher–Lookout Books (U. North Carolina Wilmington)–a press with the courage and passion and creativity to bring out the book as I envisioned it–photographs set like shadowy cliffs into prose tides–our appendages waved wildly! Even if you don’t have time to read the book, smell it. The paper contains clay, lending pages a supple feel, and sweet odor. That was publisher/designer Emily Smith’s idea. Imagine that, a book about a river city literally perfumed with silt! Such genius strokes have made my experience with Lookout Books revelatory. It’s why I’m hoping to be affiliated with those folks for many years. Art always came first. It was the prime consideration. What more could a writer ask for?

2. Your story “The Man in Blue Green” was published during One Story’s first year, Issue #7 in August 2002. What has happened since then? How have you grown as a writer since you published with us at One Story to now having your first book released?

2002! That’s a long time ago! Are you insinuating that I am the oldest debutante on record!? I am old, yet not that old either. At least, not as old as Miss. Havisham. Time is funny. Anyhow, I still like “The Man in Blue Green,” which eventually became the first chapter in a picaresque novel I developed in conjunction with RBC–a work exploring the meaning of place with equal detail/ferocity but from completely different angles. The project is set in an invented sixth borough of NY that serves as a refuge for those who have failed to succeed in other boroughs. Beleaguered citizens come to the Dronx either to gamely attempt resuscitating dead dreams or to hide from failures, live out the life of not trying, of giving up, of deforming grief. The text is supplemented by 25 b/w illustrations (ala old editions of Robinson Crusoe) by Dale Williams, a brilliant Brooklyn artist and longtime collaborator of mine. Like all of my projects, this one rests comfortably under a credo I have borrowed from the painter George Bellows: “Try everything that can be done. Be deliberate. Be spontaneous. Be thoughtful and painstaking. Be abandoned and impulsive. Learn your own possibilities.”

3. Your book is a work of non-fiction that deals close to home. Could you discuss the experience of writing the book itself and dealing with that precarious balance of truth and respect for the people represented in the work? The book resonates with a palpable honesty and you get at that truth with a no-holds-barred approach that I commend. Was the process difficult for you?

Writing about those close to us–or about identity-forging experiences (furious with meanings)–can be very rough going. Fairness and honesty are the goal, but hardly automatic, rather a gritty result of constant circumspection and questioning at every stage of the process. You’ve got to be, as I was, obsessed with getting it right. The obsession, though, was the easy part–it grew instantly out of the understanding of what was at stake for me as a writer, a son, a brother…when reaching for difficult childhood material. One thing I frequently say about River Bend Chronicle is that it was accreted in layers, each meshing with the others, and this slow organic near-to-oysterish process allowed me to capture some measure of a history’s delicacy–no dumbing down of contradictory realities I encountered as a youth, no convenient tidying up of a messy life to deliver a comforting but false message, no work of brittle judgment and dismissal or rude floodlight optimism–but rather a fluid and shameless presentation of family issues and 70s-era social confusion that fully acknowledges, and thus humanizes, the plight of each character–even those who make unfortunate mistakes which spread pain widely. Though I had a bizarre upbringing, at heart my stories of hapless neighbors and tragic relatives are stories of the shifting interplay of light and dark in lives, and for that reason they are universal. In order to get it right, I needed to just keep coming at my experiences with an ever wider lens to capture the nuances, keep coming to the task with humbleness, pressing against my limitations while concurrently understanding that they would never vanish, that I was no ultimate arbiter but a seeker of big truths that to some degree must always remain elusive.

4. In your first book, what challenges did you encounter that often do not appear in a shorter piece? How did you approach the book differently, both in its writing and editing?

The accepted book was entitled River Bend Album and consisted of an array of interlocking essays culled from a sea of autobiographical writing–the finished book contains only about 25% of pages produced since 2001. The pieces selected for the first manuscript draft had been published in good journals, were well-edited and–it seemed–set to go. Then something incredible and completely illogical happened. Something just crazy, though it fit in with many other things in my ass-backwards life. My editor and I agreed that three essays–though strong–did not belong in the book. We cut those pieces, and later, one more essay. We cut more than 40,000 words from the book and what was the result? We did not get a shorter book! We did not, in the end. We got what? We got a much longer book! For as soon as that material was removed, the remaining sections began talking to each other, pulling on each other like magnets. They began transforming beautifully. For example, an essay originally twelve pages grew to be almost fifty pages long and flowed from the back of the book all the way to the front, becoming a prologue: “Ghosts of the Mississippi.” My editors were agog but gallantly loyal. They have said to me since: “No one will believe how this book came to be.” (My wife would, though. She was there on Christmas Day when I was carving up the galley in my office.) That’s another part of what I’m trying to convey when I say that the art came first at Lookout–those involved in the project pushed far beyond prior boundaries of endurance: Emily Smith, Ben George, Beth Staples. Getting this book into its final form was akin to wrestling piggyback whales! Stumptown coffee was the drink of choice. For additional sustenance, I called on my rich memories of art created to the scale that I sought to replicate–the epic bar scenes in Ice Man Cometh and the stunning beginning of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, which finds a child whose mother has died taking a train by herself to the big event–a slow, beautiful, melancholy ride, scenery and emotions intermingling, the fear and the trees and the love and the fence blurs.

5. Your book has a wonderful title. How did you come up with it?

Lookout is the nation’s foremost teaching press. This means that the professional staff has at its disposal an amazing gang of enthusiastic and talented interns. At times, more than ten individuals were substantially contributing to some element of my book’s birth–fact-checking, promotion, design, editorial. When we started batting around possible subtitles, the students were a ready-made focus group providing invaluable responses to my ideas and those of the editors. Getting the right subtitle was particularly tricky because this work–which I often refer to as my first, second and third books wrapped into one–contains so much. It is not only the story of a fragmenting family, but also the tale of a city and America in a difficult era. Tonalities in the text are dynamic, zagging from humor to disaster in a sentence. The subtitle is an audacious tip to the reader about the nature of the adventure ahead. “Junkification…” and “Idyll…” = a tension of plastic and classic.

6. What are you most looking forward to about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th? More important, are you going to sport one of those cool bow ties inherited from Mr. Hickey that you have been posting on your blog?

Firstly, I’m looking forward to pinning on my origami corsage. In my office in a special place, I keep handmade corsages from previous balls–they make me smile. I’m not yet sure exactly what outfit I’ll be wearing, but it will of course include one of Mr. Hickey’s fabulous bow-ties. On my arm will be that mentor of mine–and wife of 23 years, Anne Pierson Wiese–and lest any rumors start flying, she did not seduce me at AWP, although her initials APW are quite near to AWP. We met as grad students at NYU, married in Brooklyn, and have since been partners in love and literature–respecting the important place writing occupies in our respective lives, giving each other the gift of space that growth requires. I’ll be so proud to be there with her, author of Floating City, and with others who have supported me over the decades that I have been striving to make work, and see it off into the world.

Introducing 2013 Debutante: Manuel Gonzales

MiniatureWifeOn June 6th, at our 4th Annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating seven One Story authors who have published their debut books over the past year. As a lead-up to the event, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews about their debut book experiences.

This week we’re talking to Manuel Gonzales, author of the collection The Miniature Wife, published by Riverhead Books. The Miniature Wife includes the innovative story Manuel published with One Story, “Pilot, Co-Pilot Writer,” which tells the hilarious, strange and moving story of a writer trapped on a hijacked airplane–circling Dallas–for 20 years.

Gonzales is the Executive Director of the Austin Bat Cave, a great non-profit organization that offers writing classes for children and teenagers in Austin, TX. So it’s no wonder that his stories are chock full of wild creatures–unicorns, zombies, and even werewolves. As the LA Times said in their review of the book: “Manuel Gonzales is a writer who can’t wait for the next, magical thing to surprise him—so he makes them happen, in the big Texas sky of his abundant imagination.”

Your collection includes, “Pilot, Co-pilot, Writer,” which you published with us in One Story. What happened from when you published in One Story to when your first book was accepted?

I wrote that story in late 2004 and it was published in late 2005. I was in the middle of writing or trying to write a novel when this story was published, a novel that I spent maybe five years writing and rewriting, but that I could never pull together, regardless how many drafts I wrote. I was living in Houston, and then moved with my wife and daughter back to Plano, where we lived for a year at my parents’ house while I continued to work on the novel, and then we moved to Paris, TX, where I worked more on the novel, lost a job working from home, became, briefly, a high school English teacher, quit work on the novel, went back to stories I wrote during and right after grad school, tried to look for a book in them, wrote more stories to make them into a book, and then I, when I finally did, tried to find the right agent for them. So. Seven years and six novel drafts and nine new stories later, the book was accepted at Riverhead. 

Your collection showcases enormous imagination and inventiveness yet manages to remain grounded in story and the details of everyday life. How have you learned to exercise such restraint while working with wild ideas? How do you keep your concepts and premises from running away with things?

What helps keep these ideas from running away from the story I want to tell is that I’m mostly interested in the characters and the details of their every day lives, in how these lives must continue functioning in the face of the apocalypse or total body paralyzation or the purchase of a unicorn, how these things don’t ever really take away the deep-seated problems or concerns facing these people, their relationships with each other, and in fact might make them worse.

Do you write stories to explore ideas or do you come up with ideas in order to write stories? Is this a false binary?

I’ll plead the third (option). I do both. I’ll write a story based on an idea and sometimes I start a story without any idea but a character or a line in mind, and then as the story moves forward, I’ll recognize ideas I’ve explored in the past or that are new ideas but pretty clearly present in hindsight. Take “Pilot”. I had the idea while traveling a lot for work that I felt like I was on a plane constantly and that I wouldn’t ever not be on a plane and then played around the idea of how I would act or how a person would act if actually in that situation. But also a lot of what’s going on in this story—looking back at it now—there’s a strong sense of stasis, of circling, and looking back at that time—I had recently left New York and my circle of friends, had been having difficulties working with my literary agent, felt myself stuck in a distant and barren suburb of Houston, in a job that wasn’t fulfilling, was little more than work — I mean, looking back at that moment in my life, it’s almost more surprising that I didn’t write twenty stories about circling a city in an airplane.

Do your stories or characters ever surprise you? Has the writing of a particular piece caused you to view what you were writing about differently?

What’s usually surprising to me is that moment when the story becomes a story. Often I’ll have an idea or a character in a situation–trapped on a plane forever, told from the point of view of the zombie, the African continent sunk into the sea–but I won’t know very much else, won’t have a direction, won’t have a story itself, and I’ll put these characters through paces, or I’ll play around with language, and then I’ll write a line or a phrase–everything went dark, I got the notion I should steal this creature from them–and suddenly this weird, amorphous piece of writing I’ve been working on is suddenly a story, has a shape that I can see. Every time that happens, and every time it’s a surprise, a thrilling surprise.

Your collection features a number of pieces written in the style of a non-fiction profile and I’ve read elsewhere it’s one of your favorite forms to read as well. What is it about the non-fiction profile piece that piques your interest as a writer and as a reader? 

As a writer, I love the ability a person writing non-fiction has to simply lay out details of a person or a situation. There is no fictional trickery or obfuscation, no worry of show don’t tell with the nonfiction essay. That straightforward, declarative sentence is amazing fun to work with in fiction but you can’t usually get away with when writing a short story. I mean, nonfiction writers have the benefit of writing from facts, and so of course readers are going to be inclined to suspend disbelief because the intention is straight belief without any suspension. As a reader, I love the ability great nonfiction writers have of taking something so rigid and potentially anti-narrative as facts and crafting an affecting story out of them.

What are you looking forward to the most about the One Story Literary Debutante Ball on June 6th?

Buying a kickass ball gown. It’s funny because the coming out party, or the debutante ball, is huge in Mexican culture, with the quinceañera, but that’s reserved just for girls, and also my parents didn’t really get into that when my sister and I were kids, but still. Here is my chance to horn in on that quinceañera action. Also, it’ll be a great party and a lot of fun connecting with good friends I don’t see often enough and making new friends with the other debs, and to do all of this and also help support an outfit like One Story Magazine makes the perfect kind of sense.