Saturday, May 31, 2014

One Story's Storied Literary Debutante Party

The Blue Vipers performing at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball
By Nick Fuller Googins
Brooklyn, NY, May 22, 2014

Hannah Tinti, co-founder and editor-in-chief of literary magazine One Story, is also a best-selling author and a teacher at Columbia’s MFA program. She’s a literary personality who wears many hats, and on the night of May 22, at funky Brooklyn performance space Roulette, her hat was of the miniature Edwardian ringmaster variety, bedazzled with black sequins and festooned with glittery silver butterflies. Her Converse All-Stars matched the butterflies, flashing smartly as she crossed the stage, stepped up to the microphone, and, politely, asked everyone to please shut up. Time for the debutante ball to begin.

But let me back up for a moment: One Story’s annual Literary Debutante Ball is a celebration of One Story authors who have published their debut books in the past year. The process of announcing these authors (seven of them this year, including Ben Stroud, whose collection, Byzantium, earned him the 2013 Story Prize Spotlight Award), their metamorphosis from mere mortals into literary debutantes, in no way resembles a traditional literary reading. It’s much, much more fun. As soon as I checked in, I was invited to grab a “Let the World Spin,” the evening’s custom, Colum-McCann-inspired cocktail (more on the man later).

This is how a proper Literary Debutante Ball warms up: Live band on stage. Tables of appetizers. Two open bars. A bartender dancing to swells of music. Garden lights strung overhead, along with strands of cut-out letters spelling the first line of each debutante’s recently published book. Clusters of elegantly dressed writers, editors, and lovers of literature. Burlesque-costumed women weaving through the crowd hawking framed commas, semicolons, and exclamation marks at $10 a pop.

It was quite a lot to take in.

I ate some appetizers, stood in line at one of the bars, walked the floor looking for debutantes, trying to match faces to what I remembered from author photos. I moved over to the other bar and struck up a conversation with a young guy who turned out to be a former student of Tinti’s at Columbia. (“Still writing?” I asked him. “Of course, you have to,” he said, as though it were an absurd question.) I was curious why people had come to the debutante ball, in what capacity. I asked another woman. We were standing side by side, admiring the wall of advice—framed, hand-written bits of writing-based knowledge and guidance from established writers and debutantes alike, available for purchase as part of a silent auction. The woman told me she was an agent. I asked if she represented any of the debutantes. She said she did not. Anyone, then, whom I may have heard of? "Jonathan Franzen?" she said. "Oh, sure," I said, "I’ve heard of him."

The Golden Thread

Jonathan Franzen’s agent and I parted ways. I continued down the wall of advice, examining the handwritten words of encouragement and inspiration from the likes of this year's Story Prize winner George Saunders and, yes, Jonathan Franzen. I especially liked Hannah Tinti’s advice, not only because of its mythological lyricism, “Your story is a puzzle—a maze. But your mind created it—so the answer, the key, the golden thread leading out is inside you. Unspool it and meet your minotaur,” but also because she’d encircled it in cartoony, serpent-like monsters. Elsewhere on the wall, interspersed with the words of encouragement and inspiration, were words of caution. From the pen of Lynne Tillman: “Don’t expect that being published will make you happy.” Other authors mined their personal role models for wisdom, such as debutante Molly Antopol, who quoted Grace Paley. Someone else cited John Updike. Michael Cunningham quoted a slightly less literary figure, but it was still excellent advice: “Don’t panic! (remember what Marilynn Monroe said—‘I wasn’t the prettiest, I wasn’t the most talented, I just wanted it more than anybody else’).”

At this point, I discovered that the debutantes’ books, arranged in handsome piles on tables throughout the theater, were not merely showcase pieces but meant for the taking, by us, the guests (meaning me). But I was not alone in my discovery. Books were going fast, flying off the tables. I had to move quickly. Luckily, I’d already read Ben Stroud’s Byzantium and Molly Antopol’s The UnAmericans, allowing me to skip those particular stations. I snagged Rachel Cantor’s A Highly Unlikely Scenario, James Scott’s The Kept, and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I stopped to say a quick hello to Tin House editor, Rob Spillman and did a double-take at the sight of author John Hodgman. Hodgman’s story, “Vilanova: Or How I Became a Former Professional Literary Agent,” has the distinction of comprising the debut issue of One Story. This evening he was dressed like unbearably snobbish author Louis Green, whom he played in HBO’s Bored to Death. I then nabbed David James Poissant’s The Heaven of Animals and Amelia Kahaney’s The Brokenhearted, completing my debutante reading list. It was good timing. Hannah Tinti had just taken the stage, tapped the mic, asked us in her own charming way to please quiet down.

To kick things off, Tinti and fellow co-founder Maribeth Batcha said a few words about One Story, now in its twelfth year of existence. (“Sort of our bar mitzvah,” Tinti said. “We are a man now!* An active participant in the world!”) One Story, which publishes a single short work of fiction every three weeks, and never publishes the same author twice, maintains a special commitment to encouraging writers at the beginning of their careers, a commitment that Tinti and Batcha said they were pleased to have strengthened over the years. With that, the One Story co-founders sat cross-legged on the side of the stage, making room for the honorees of the evening.

One Story's literary debutante's (L to R): Molly Antopol,
David James Poissante, Rachel Cantor, James Scott,
Celeste Ng, Ben Stroud, and Amelia Kahaney
The ceremony itself was brief yet meaningful. The debutantes were announced one by one, escorted down the “aisle” (parallel strands of rope held waist-high by glamorous volunteers) by a respective mentor, in some cases an editor, such as Amelia Kahaney’s escort, Sarah Landis. In other cases an established author, such as Rachel Kantor’s escort, Robin Black, a One Story alum and 2011 literary debutante herself, did the honors. As each debutante took the stage, the first line of his or her new book was read aloud, followed by general whooping, hollering, applause, and hoisted cocktails, all to celebrate the authors’ entrance into the literary community, to acknowledge thier current success, and to wish for them many future years of inspiration and sales. Amid this frenzy of jubilation, optimism, and cheer, came the gimlet-eyed first line of Ben Stroud’s collection: “I was born a disappointment.” It brought down the house.

Confusing Debs

Directly after the literary debutantes were announced and celebrated, One Story presented its 2014 “Mentor of the Year Award” to literary rock star Colum McCann, who teaches at Hunter College and is deeply involved in numerous literary organizations. McCann, keeping with the theme of the evening, devoted the majority of his acceptance speech to discussing his own literary heroes and mentors, one of whom was memoirist Frank McCourt. McCann recounted a visit to McCourt in a late stage of his life, when McCourt, unable to talk, communicated via white board and dry erase marker. The way McCann tells it, at one point he asked the ailing author, “Where will you go dancing next?” McCourt’s written reply: “Upstairs with the Great JC and Mary M and the twelve Hot Boys. And in the morning, all will be forgiven.”

McCann signed off, the party resumed, dancing commenced. I made a beeline to Ben Stroud, whom I wanted to congratulate and, more importantly, thank for writing Byzantium. His collection’s ten stories skip from ancient Mesopotamia to colonial West Indies to contemporary East Texas and other times and places. The first story, my favorite, follows an idle, fatherless man-child with a crippled hand (you’re correct in guessing this is the poor sap to declare himself “born a disappointment”). Summoned by the Byzantine emperor, the narrator is tasked with a top-secret mission: travel to a desert monastery outside Jerusalem, locate a particular monk, and castrate him. It sounds gruesome, and is, but more so it’s a moving, humorous, and entertaining story. I planned to relay this sentiment to Ben Stroud, but when I got to him, I didn’t have time for much more than a handshake and quick congratulations before he was swarmed by others. No matter, I knew when to move on. Anyway, I had another mission: Find Molly Antopol.

I intercepted her on her way to the dance floor. After congratulating Antopol, both on her newly anointed literary debutante status and on her recently published collection of stories, The UnAmericans, I wanted to talk about a compelling blog post of hers that I’d come across, “On Writing and Being a Parent,” which cleverly examines how parenthood affects the practice of writing, in some ways for the better. I told all this to Antopol in one long breath. She had no idea what I was talking about.

“What do you mean?” I said. “That’s not your blog?”

“I don’t think so,” Antopol said. “I’m pretty sure I’m not a mom.”

Ah! I’d mixed up debs! The most mortal of all debutante-ball sins! Had this been an episode of Gossip Girl, I would’ve been shunned from Upper East Side society for years, never again allowed to grace the Waldorf Astoria ballroom floor. Thankfully, this was Brooklyn, and Molly Antopol has a gracious way of alleviating uncomfortable situations. I believe she deserves another award for that.

Debutante Amelia Kahaney, I later discovered, is the author of the wonderful parenting-writing blog post. Sadly, I never found Kahaney in the crowd, never got to talk to her. Which brings up the only problem with One Story's Literary Debutante Ball: It's such a kick-ass party that it's impossible to talk to everyone in the room. Wisely, One Story continues the celebration through the following day, hosting a low key reading by the debutantes at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene. The reading was scheduled for the evening, giving all participants eighteen-odd hours of recovery time, a good thing because after dancing through the night with Colum McCann and Hannah Tinti and seven happy literary debutantes, sure, all may be forgiven in the morning, but a hangover still hurts.

* Editor's Note: In fact, One Story will not be a man, according to Jewish tradition, until next year, when it turns 13.

Photos courtesy of One Story.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Kseniya Melnik's Competing Passion

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kseniya Melnik, author of Snow in May (Henry Holt and Company) talks about how she gets unstuck and where she finds inspiration.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I think I would be a medical doctor or a therapist. I was seriously interested in both professions when I was younger; both have caring and storytelling aspects to them. My grandmother was a doctor, and I worked at her clinic one summer and spent much time hanging out with the doctors. I was fascinated by medical gadgets, scalpels, and other surgical instruments. (The main character in my story “Summer Medicine” shares this early interest of mine.) I took premedical classes in college and afterward and volunteered at the emergency room at a Brooklyn hospital. Writing, of course, was the competing passion, and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to devote enough time and attention to it if I were to be a good doctor, too. I admire writer-doctors: Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Conan Doyle, Janusz Korczak, Chris Adrian, and many others.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
For Snow in May, I borrowed several situations from life and then developed them in new directions. These premises often come prepackaged with the main players, and I had to decide whether to substitute them with completely fictional creations or model the characters on the people. I found that sticking too closely to real life details froze my imagination; I felt pressure to tell "the true story," which is impossible anyway. I prefer to pick one or two psychological and physical traits that are most interesting to me in the real person and fill in with my imagination from there. So far only my family members have recognized facets of their lives in the book, but they knew I was using some biographical material. They are pleased that I'm interested in telling their stories. 

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I don't know whether it's the best idea I've ever had—in fact, it might’ve been the worst one—but for a while I was really excited about a story in which a girl begins dating the Devil in New York City. My Devil was a sort of exhausted, jaded Wall Street banker type who made deals with singularly ambitious people. It was a bit burdened by description of the mechanics of these deals and explanations of how various celebrities throughout history were connected to the Devil: Caesar, Lincoln, Bonnie and Clyde, Marilyn Monroe, Hitler, etc. I could never quite figure out why the Devil would be interested in my girl-next-door character, though, aside from the fact that maybe he needed someone to take care of him, to offer him a safe haven for respite from his difficult career. 

Where do you do most of your work?
I’ve written at office desks, in libraries and coffee shops, on planes and subways, on a ferry sailing through Alaskan and Canadian waters, and even in a car on cross-country trips. Ideally, I prefer to be alone and in a more relaxed environment, so that I can fool myself into thinking that writing is not hard work. Right now I work at home in El Paso, Texas; my love seat stands by the window from where I can see the Mexican border. I place the computer or a book on a lap desk. With a cup of coffee and my purring cat wedged between me and the computer, it's quite perfect.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I read! I have gotten the majority of my breakthroughs while reading, and I believe that most craft issues can be solved by reading a writer who does excellently whatever gives you difficulty. If you have spent enough time on the story, your brain will continue to work on it subconsciously while you do other things. Reading often engenders surprising connections, so does going for a walk or a run while listening to music that you relate to the story in some way.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Keep writing, keep revising, keep reading, and keep believing in your story and the importance of telling it.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
All kinds of other arts: music, dance, painting and sculpture, film, photographs. Snowy and rainy weather always puts me in the mood for daydreaming. Looking at (not in—that would be creepy!) lit-up windows at night and imagining what kind of people might live in those houses, what kinds of lives they might lead.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Jonathan Woods and The Hard-Boiled Tradition

In the third in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jonathan Woods, author of Phone Call from Hell and Other Tales of the Damned (New Pulp Press) talks genre.

The post-modern romp, Flaubert’s Parrot, which appeared on the literary scene in 1984, made Julian Barnes’ reputation. But his two best books, published in 1980 and 1981 under the nom de plume Dan Kavanagh, are Duffy and Fiddle City. I have read each multiple times. They are crime novels.

Both books feature the bisexual ex London cop, turned purveyor of private investigator services, named Duffy. An odd duck with a gold stud in his ear, he knows his way around the seedier parts of London like the back of his hand.

Tawdry, violent, funny, politically incorrect, eccentric, sexy, well-plotted, entertaining, smart, clever, and a telling commentary on the dark side. These are the attributes of Duffy and Fiddle City. What more could you want from a book? Yet, as was recently suggested in an article in The Guardian, the Man Booker prize-winning author is ambivalent about claiming ownership of them, even as they are again in print after a long hiatus.
a.k.a. Julian Barnes

Is this just one more example of a “literary” type fearful of being categorized as a genre writer? A mere entertainer?

I can’t speak directly to Mr. Barnes views. “Never met the bloke,” as Duffy might say.

But a quick jog down two centuries of American writers shows Mr. Barnes’ reserve in acknowledging his charmingly off-center private eye creation to be misplaced.

Edgar Allan Poe, one of the cornerstones of American literature, invented the detective story with his renown novella, “Murder in the Rue Morgue.” The subject matter of Poe’s most famous tales reads like crime fiction 101: madness, axe murders, evil eyes, revenge, sexual obsession, giant apes tearing people limb from limb.

James M. Cain invented the noir sensibility in his two masterpieces, The Postman Always Rings Twice, published in 1934, and Double Indemnity, published two years later. In both stories lust and obsession lead inevitably to madness and murder. Classic noir follows an ordinary person whose life suddenly tumbles out of control, bound straight to hell. Noir explores the dark aspects of the human psyche and the haphazardness and irrationality of our existence. In it are the roots of existential philosophy, which sees the world as absurd and without meaning, where bad luck and trouble can happen to anyone, anywhere, without notice.

It is well acknowledged that Camus was influenced by Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice when he wrote his most famous work, The Stranger, published in 1942. As Matthew Ward, who produced a new Americanized translation of The Stranger in 1988, said:

Camus admitted using an "American method," particularly in the first half of the book. He mentioned Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner and James M. Cain as influences. My feeling is that The Stranger is more like Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice than Camus cared to admit.

Next up is Raymond Chandler, who, together with Dashiell Hammett, is credited with inventing the American hard-boiled detective story. Chandler is one of the great literary stylists of American writing in the first half of the 20th Century. His The Big Sleep is ranked #26 in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Novels in English since 1923 (the year Time started publication). Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century lists The Big Sleep as #96.

The sensibility of noir, hard-boiled and detective fiction has inexorably insinuated itself into post-WWII American writing. Flannery O’Connor mixed murder with Catholicism in the rural South in unforgettable stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Chester Himes chronicled the American Black experience of the 1950s and 1960s in his hilarious, violent and sexy Harlem crime novels starring the Black cops Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. An endless stream of lurid tales of sexual obsession and murder flowed from the pen of Patricia Highsmith, whom Graham Greene described as a "writer who has created a world of her own—a world claustrophobic and irrational which we enter each time with a sense of personal danger.” And who can forget Norman Mailer’s murderous midnight prowl of the 1960s: An American Dream.

Just as greed, lust, murder and mayhem still sell newspapers, crimes and punishment remain the subject matter of our best living writers. From the darkly ironic tales of drug smugglers, modern knights-errant, and psychopaths wrought by Robert Stone in such novels as Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, to the pulp fiction of No Country for Old Men and The Counselor by the inimitable Cormac McCarthy, to the ambiguous and stylized noir of the young writer Laura van den Berg in her collection The Isle of Youth, crime fiction is alive and well in literary America.

So step forward Mr. Barnes and acknowledge your finest work.

Long live writers with cojones. Literary labels be damned.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jacob M. Appel and the Door to Eternal Life

In the second in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Jacob M. Appel, author of Scouting for the Reaper (Black Lawrence Press) discusses literary immortality.

Let’s start with the bad news first: I’m dying. That’s something I’ve learned in my medical career*—always start with the worst. No patient wants to hear: “Your blood pressure looks good, your cholesterol is down, and I’m glad to see you’re keeping the weight off….Oh, and by the way, you have brain tumor.” Fortunately, in my case, the bad news isn’t imminently grim. I don’t have a rare disease likely to kill me tomorrow, or even a more common disease likely to kill me next Thursday; I haven’t been diagnosed with any disease at all, in fact, although in the spirit of full disclosure, my gums could be in better shape. And yet, there is no shaking the inevitable: One of these days, whether in five years or fifty, I will find myself as dead as Jacob Marley and Custer’s cavalry and the campaign to bring the Dodgers back to Brooklyn. (I mean no offense to anyone who is dying imminently of a rare disease—but if you are, and you’re spending your final hours reading my musings on the Internet, I strongly urge you to reconsider your priorities.)

And now the good news: You’re dying too. So we have something in common. (If you happen to be a single female who bears a striking resemblance to Sophia Loren at twenty-five, I’d like to emphasize that last part: We do have something in common.) The stark reality is that no matter how many books a person publishes, no matter how many O. Henry Prizes a writer wins, the understated fellow with the scythe corrals every last one of us in the end.

We all know this truth—although deep down, myself included, we don’t really accept it. We still believe that somehow we will prove the outlier, the one exception. In smaller ways, while leading our lives of often vocal desperation, we cling to other false hopes: that a long-lost uncle will bequeath us a mining fortune, that a girl we adored in high school will track us down in mid-life to profess her devotion, that our piddling yarns will win a prize.

Wilt the Stilt: In your dreams
So now for the better news: Fiction is both the great equalizer and the door to eternal life. Walter Mitty has nothing on me when I’m seated before my computer. At four in the morning, in my bathrobe, I can play hopscotch with the Kaiser, and free Sacco and Vanzetti, and lure Scarlett away from Rhett—although this final triumph has copyright implications. Last night, I singlehandedly overthrew the brutal dictatorships in Equatorial Guinea and Eritrea simultaneously. Jimmy Carter may have committed adultery in his heart many times, but on the printed page, my love life rivals Wilt Chamberlain’s. That cute girl I adored in high school can take a number. My uncle, who in real life wouldn’t loan me a spare mask during a sarin attack, has already transferred his fictional billions into my Swiss accounts. The magic of writing fiction is that it enables a poor sop like yours truly to reimagine the world as I’d like it to be. And there’s not a damn thing anybody else—not by boss or my landlord or even a battalion of federal marshals—can do about it. Give me a crayon and an index card, and my days are no longer numbered.

Writers don’t want immortality after death. We want it while we’re alive. Who doesn’t fantasize of showing up at one’s own funeral and announcing, “I told you so”? Or at least complaining about the beer selection. Living in a fictional world of my own creation—even if only for a few moments each morning, before I have to trade my bathrobe for my white coat—is the closest I can ever come to eternal life on earth.

Now for the best news of all: You can share my immortality. You can read my collection, Scouting for the Reaper, and live vicariously through me as I live vicariously through somebody else. And then someday I might see you on the subway, reading my stories, and I might live vicariously through you as you live vicariously through my characters. And if you bear a striking resemblance to Sophia Loren at twenty-five, I’ll likely return home and write a story about you, and in that story, I’ll have the courage to say hello, and my uncle will leave us a mining fortune, and we’ll live happily ever after. Forever.

* Editor's note: The author is also a physician

Monday, May 12, 2014

Lee Upton Breaks the Ice

In the first in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Upton, author of The Tao of Humiliation (BOA Editions) offers her approach to avoiding writer's block.

What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
Halloween decorations come alive and kill.

What fiction that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
So much fiction by Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark seems miraculous to me: Murdoch for the wild richness of her plots and the way her sentences distill sensation; and Spark for her ability to be both witty and harrowing at once.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
The Tao of Humiliation is inspired by humiliation. It didn’t require research. I remember moments when I have felt deeply humiliated, but then, in some instances, peace descended, as if all my defenses, including my illusion of control, dropped. The humor in my fiction arises because the circumstances that characters face are humiliating. I like the sort of humor that lets us see our fears magnified and forgiven. My characters are often vulnerable people who seek strength in all the wrong places. Yet sometimes their very vulnerability is a form of strength that they gradually recognize and claim. Here’s a list of what else, besides humiliation, inspires my work:
  • Abandoned houses
  • Orchards
  • Actors
  • The ocean—and rivers, lakes, creeks, and ponds
  • My encounters as an eleven-year-old with pictorial representations of the Greek gods and goddesses as forms of early sex education
  • Mermaids
  • The great themes: freedom and solitude and yearning—and violence as it is resisted

The literal approach

Where do you do most of your work?
Years ago I had to learn to write in various situations and places: in a department store lounge, on buses. I still rove a good deal—from my study to the couch to the bed to the kitchen table and back to my study and then to the couch again. It’s like circuit training.

What do you do when you’re stuck or have “writer’s block”?
I avoid being blocked by working on multiple projects. But I can get stuck in the middle of a project or realize I’ve prematurely closed off the exits in a story. When that happens I return to the beginning of the story to see what I’ve missed. I also think very hard about setting. Sometimes I try another point of view or add a character or combine characters or extend a scene. What especially helps: to consider what the primary character’s obsessions might be. What is the secret the character is denying? And how can I show more compassion for all my characters?

Stories probably should be as suspenseful for the writer as for the reader. When they’re not, it’s because they’re telling us something we already know in a way that we’ve already told it to ourselves. Sometimes being more ambitious helps. Trying a plot turn that seems impossible and bound to fail can create new excitement about the story’s potential. That sort of excitement may be the great icebreaking ship that plows through the heavy polar sheet of a stuck story.

Should literature help people live their lives—or is that asking for too much?
I’ve always asked too much from literature, and it has, nevertheless, helped me live my life by crushing my sudden attacks of despair. So far.

What writing advice do you have?
The best advice I ever received about writing: Relax.
And the best advice I give myself: Endure and be grateful.