Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Month: May 2015

Lighting the Literary World with Merle Drown (Contributor Interview Series #4)

Several years ago, Merle Drown‘s “Reunion” earned the Bartleby Snopes Story of the Month honors. Merle hasn’t slowed down much since then. With several novels to his credit, Merle has proven a highly successful author. Now he’s back with a brand new novel called Lighting the World. We were fortunate to get the chance to speak with Merle about his success and the new book.

1. Merle, you had a bit of success in Bartleby Snopes a few years ago, with two published stories and a Story of the Month award. Why did you abandon us? Just kidding, of course. Seriously though, how do you feel your early success in lit mags contributed to your overall direction as an author?

Early in my career I published some stories early, then publisLighting coverhed novels. I worked on (and am still working on) a doorstop of a work it started coming downstairs at night drinking my beer and eating my cheese and found myself taking refuge in flash fiction. I’ve published over 30 of these pieces and still write them. I am, of course, esp. proud of being in Bartleby S! One thing writing flash fiction taught me was how to shrink mss. Even the beast novel has been put on a diet.

2. Tell us a bit about what you’ve been up to since you last appeared in Bartleby Snopes. Do you still submit to lit mags?

I do still submit to lit mags. I have a number of flash fictions, which I’d like to publish. I am focused on several novels, which are in different stages. One I’m currently shopping, one is in a much earlier stage, then there’s the beast…

3. Lighting the World‘s main characters are young teenagers, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a young adult book. How do you go about writing young characters while maintaining a voice that can be universally read?

I didn’t intend to write a YA. When I was a teen, we read Catcher in the Rye, Black Boy, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, just thinking of them as “books,” good books with young protagonists. I think there are good YA books as do millions of readers and I hope teenagers will read Lighting the World. (My friend Jo Knowles has a terrific one out now, Read Between the Lines). Teaching high school for many years gave me experience with teenage voices and with their ability to switch lingo when necessary. Thanks for noticing that their voices are “authentic” and the authorial voice “can be universally read.”

4. How does personal experience shape the characters in Lighting the World? Did you ever think about running away from home or showing up to school with a gun?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI did run away from home, but not with a gun. I did own a gun and did hunt a bit, never so well as Wade. I never thought of taking it to school, though many of us kept tire irons next to driver’s seat of our cars. Other parts of the novel, unrequited love, conflict with parents (for me it was my father, not my mother) were part of my life, and I’d guess, part of many teens’ lives. Something we too often forget is that teenagers are idealists, who want success in some grand sense. I think of our dreams (and the “American Dream”) a la Gatsby. We want to win the Nobel Prize, become millionairs, discover a cure for cancer, play in the World Series, win an Oscar. For Wade, “doing good in the world” is a genuine goal. He will take care of Uncle Andew and rescue Maria. And like Gatsby, it was “the foul dust that floated in the wake of his dreams” that destroyed Wade and his dreams. I think this longing is common for American teens, as it was for me, and most of us learn the cost of dreams and develop the blend of realism and romanticism that allows us to survive and prosper. Few of us have to pay the terrible price Wade did for our illusions.

5. There’s a 1-star review up for the novel on Goodreads (which is completely absurd, by the way). How do these reviews affect you as a writer?

I believe everyone is entitled to his/her own opinion and to his/her own mistakes. My first novel garnered good reviews with no mud. My second was widely and well reviewed, including a starred review from PW and a fine, standalone review in the Sunday NY Times, but it had also received two zingers, including one from a small, local paper. Go figure.

6.  What are you working on next?

I’m shopping Pa, a novel that is cousin to The Suburbs of Heaven, a dark comedy, Game of Thrones for the rural set. I’m revising a novel set in America’s past with some slightly non-realistic elements (a departure for me). Then I have the aforementioned monster that I want to tame or not.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with us. Congratulations on your new book, and good luck with Pa. We’re looking forward to reading it once it finds a home. 

Lighting the World is available for purchase from here.

7th Annual Dialogue Contest Is Now Open

Our 7th Annual Dialogue Contest is now open. You can find complete contest rules here.

Some quick information:

Prizes: A minimum of $500 will be awarded, with at least $300 going to the grand prize winner. Our five finalists will also appear in Issue 15 of the magazine due out in January 2016. Last year we awarded $2380 in prize money. For every entry over 50, an additional $5 will be added to the total prize money.

2015 Prize Structure:

1st Prize: $300 minimum + $3 for every entry over 50
2nd Prize: $100 minimum + $1 for every entry over 50
3rd Prize: $50 minimum + $1 for every two entries over 50
4th Prize: $30 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50
5th Prize: $20 minimum + $1 for every 4 entries over 50

Entry Fee: $10 for unlimited entries (only one entry allowed at a time; see Response/Notification section for more details). Entry fee is due at time of submission and will be collected through Submittable.

Be sure to read our dialogue writing tips for advice on crafting your entry. You can also read our past winners while you’re there.

Suggested Reading by Story of the Month Winner Robin White

We asked Robin White, our April Story of the Month winner, what he’s been reading on the web lately. Here’s what he recommended:

Dirty Blue, by Ani King (published by Pidgeon Holes)

Severance, by Leslee Becker (published by Boston Review)

Wanted, by Kathy Steinemann (published by Saturday Night Reader)

Disappearing Act, by Chelsea Hanna Cohen (published by freeze frame fiction)

A Memory from Childhood, by Fiona Helmsley (published by Dogzplot)

Tell us what you think of Robin’s picks in the comments. Feel free to recommend some of your favorite online stories as well.

The Hit Man by J.F. Smith

At Bartleby Snopes, we receive thousands of submissions a year. As you might expect, things can get a bit redundant in the so-called slush pile. A few weeks ago, Managing Editor Nathaniel Tower published some controversial thoughts as a guest post on the freeze frame fiction blog. In the post, Tower ranted against a few things he’s tired of seeing in submissions. While most writers seemed to enjoy Tower’s frankness, a few thought his opinions were a bit too strongly stated. We won’t get into the different interpretations of Tower’s words. That’s not why we’re here. Instead, we want to share a wonderful story we received in response to the post.

A talented writer decided to take Tower’s post as a challenge. Rather than avoiding the tired topics Tower mentioned, J.F Smith chose to incorporate much of the forbidden subject matter. The result was an amusing and charming story that we just had to share with the world.

So, without further ado, here is J.F. Smith’s wonderful story that violates all the rules:

The Hit Man

by J.F. Smith

It was cloudy outside, so no artfully depicted light shone through the windows in this story. Instead, discs of recessed lighting lit the doctor’s kitchen.

The doctor sipped a cup of warmed-over coffee. He sat on a banquet stool and stared out the kitchen window, waiting for the food delivery truck. It was Wednesday, which meant that it was food delivery day. Although the ingredients came attractively packaged in a cooler, the doctor liked to store it in his refrigerator before leaving for his morning rounds, because you couldn’t be too careful with food poisoning.

The doctor lived on the side of the hill, which bears almost no weight on the plot, except for the part when the doctor wondered whether one must set the emergency brake if one parks his car nose-down. This, of course, he mused when a low black car came to a rest just across the street in this very manner. The doctor poured himself another cup of coffee in a small half-cup sized mug purchased by his wife.

Just as he considered the practicality of the e-brake on a hill (or not), the doorbell rang. On the stoop stood a man in gray trousers. He was bald, or nearly so. It was hard to tell.

“Yes?” the doctor asked.

“Oh good! It’s you,” the man said.

“Can I help you?”

“Sure,” the man said. “I’m here to talk to you about that research project of yours.”

The doctor shifted his weight. “I’m sorry. I’m not permitted to talk about it quite yet.” He allowed himself a brief moment to think about his upcoming media circuit. His goal was an interview with Sanjay Gupta, as he thought of himself as a slightly shorter and older version of the famous physician. He imagined their likenesses side-by-side on a noontime program, and warm, smug joy crackled through him. They could be brothers, the cameraman might joke. The doctor composed himself for the sake of this gray-pallored reporter in front of him. “Who are you? How did you get this address?”

“From my boss,” the man said. “And, I’m the Hit Man.” With that, he reared back and slapped the doctor across the face.

The doctor recoiled. “Hey!”

“May I?” the Hit Man asked. He scuffed his feet on the mat and stepped through the threshold into the doctor’s house. “Will my car be okay out there?”

The doctor braced himself against the hall table and did not answer. A vase that held a bouquet of artificial flowers fell to the wood floor, but did not break.

The Hit Man squinted at him. “Hoo, boy. That’s a five-fingered cheek, all right.” He bent down and picked up the vase, stepping close to the doctor and reaching around him to replace it.

The doctor trembled. “Take anything you want,” he said. “Just, please. Don’t hurt me.” He paused. “Are you going to kill me?”

“Me?” the Hit Man thumbed his chest. “Of course not. The boss said no deaths.” Whistling, he walked down the doctor’s hallway and into the kitchen.

The doctor thought about calling the police, but his only house phone was in the kitchen, where from the sounds of it, the Hit Man was heating himself a cup of coffee. He was dreaming, the doctor decided, and said as much.

“Come on,” the Hit Man said. “You know the answer to that one.”

The doctor followed him into the kitchen, where the Hit Man drank from the doctor’s own small mug. “Tell me why you’re here.”

“I already did,” the Hit Man said. “You know, you have a lovely home, but the light in here is awfully harsh, yeah?”


“Anyhow,” the Hit Man said. “The research project.”

“What about it?”

“Time to trash it, Doc.”

The doctor laughed. “Hardly. We’re one isolated variable away from a cure for cancer.”

The Hit Man sighed. He put down the coffee, flexed his fingers, and slapped the doctor’s other cheek.

“What was that for?” the doctor cried.

The Hit Man looked annoyed. “I’m just doing my job,” he said. “Boss wants me here until you agree to back off.” His eyes brightened. “’Til you say ‘oncle!’ Get it? Because you’re an oncologist?”

Goddamn pharmaceutical companies, the doctor thought.

The doorbell rang in two quick bursts, and they heard a thump against the door. The doctor excused himself and found the food delivery cooler on the stoop. He retrieved it and brought it back to the kitchen. “Look, you can tell your medicine man boss to tackle some other monster. Go after Alzheimer’s, for Chrissake.”

The Hit Man looked surprised. He sat down on the banquet stool. “My boss isn’t Big Pharma, Doc.”

The doctor opened the cooler and began unpacking it. He set wrapped and labeled meats and fish out first, followed by earthy root vegetables, ripe fruit, and small brown paper bags full of spices and mustard. “Who, then?”

The Hit Man put down the coffee and leaned toward the doctor. “The Editor,” he said. His tone was low.

It was the doctor’s turn to be surprised. “Who?”

The Hit Man shrugged. “It doesn’t matter to me, Doc. Just know that your research project really stomps his brakes.”

“I think you mean ‘grinds his gears.’”

“Didn’t quit my day job for nothing, yeah?”

“Your day job?”

“I was a lousy teacher.”

The doctor removed two ice packs from the cooler. He opened the freezer and added one to a row of twenty-six of them (two for each week since he signed up for the service). He put the other against his cheek.

“I got you pretty good, didn’t I?” the Hit Man said. He wiped his hands on his trousers and reached for the recipe sheet. Together, they read the label. Filet with Fruit Medley for Two.

The Hit Man pointed to the For Two. “Your wife like this?”

“It’s a bit of a delicate situation. We’re… separated.”

The Hit Man nodded in sympathy. “So’re we. She run around on you, or you on her? When the cat’s away, the dog just may, am I right, Doc?”

The doctor told him it was nothing like that. Long hours for him at work, longer for her at home. They grew apart. The details didn’t matter. He tapped the recipe sheet in front of the Hit Man. “Who would eat fruit with meat, anyway?” the doctor asked.

“Nietzsche ate fruit with beef for lunch every day,” the Hit Man said.

“Is that true?”

“I don’t know. It was in a textbook I taught to my students.”

The doctor put the ingredients in the refrigerator. “So now you’re a hit man? Shouldn’t you have a black overcoat and a gun?”

“Now you sound like my wife. Plus, I told you. I don’t kill people.”

“Sounds like you might be a lousy hit man,” the doctor said.

“Ouch,” the Hit Man said. “So. The research project?”

“I probably won’t give it up,” the doctor said.

“Suit yourself,” the Hit Man said. He drained the coffee and wiped his hands on his trousers again. “Now, I gotta figure out what to tell the boss.”


BIO: J.F. Smith writes, dances, teaches, and occasionally blogs at She is a Faculty Professor of Creative Writing at SNHU, where she teaches graduate students online while sitting in her Boston-area office. J.F. has most recently been published in Flash Fiction Magazine, Boston Literary Review, Thought Catalog, and Möbius. She lives with her husband and their infant daughter, Lucy.