Bartleby Snopes Writing Blog

Becoming a Better Writer

Author: Nathaniel Tower (page 1 of 4)

Thank You And Goodbye

When I started Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine back in 2008, I didn’t have a long-term vision. I wasn’t trying to create the next great lit mag. I launched the magazine because I was a frustrated writer. I was simply tired of waiting six or more months for a form rejection, and I wanted to do something different. Writers deserve better.

I founded Bartleby Snopes on the principle that every submission matters. That’s why I committed to responding to every story within a week. And that’s also why I offered personal feedback on every story. Naturally, this wasn’t too hard at first. A fledgling magazine that lacked a compelling design started by a no-name writer didn’t demand much attention.

Slowly but surely, the submissions trickled in. As the magazine became more well-known, I decided it needed to offer more. I gave the website a facelift. I started the Story of the Month Contest and later the annual Dialogue Contest. I added staff members. I became an early adopter of Submishmash (now known as Submittable) and an early proponent of flash novels. We paid out over $12,000 to writers. Over the course of 8 years, the magazine saw a steady increase in submissions and readership. Times were good.  

In our 8+ years operating, we’ve received over 17,000 submissions. We’ve published over 750 stories and over 600 authors. We nominated stories for every indie literary award. Some of our authors later became published novelists, award-winning writers, and valued members of the literary community. Others were already accomplished writers before submitting to us. And we are grateful for every opportunity we’ve had to publish writers.

Now it’s time to close the book on Bartleby Snopes.

I consider myself a realist (and mostly a pessimist). Bartleby Snopes has been a big part of my life, but I don’t expect the world will end as a result of this announcement. I anticipate it will create nothing more than a minor ripple. A post or two on Facebook about how it’s sad that another magazine is closing its doors.

The people who will care the most are the ones we’ve published. But even their melancholy will be short lived. As will mine.

Some will wonder why. Others will wonder why now. Others will know the answers without hearing them. But most will simply find other magazines for their stories.

The decision to close Bartleby Snopes is something I’ve been kicking around for a while. Mostly, it’s personal. I no longer have the time or the energy to make the magazine into what it should be to give our writers what they deserve. Don’t mistake this for an act of selflessness. I’m doing this mostly for me. I’m getting older. Work is more exhausting than it used to be. My writing has been stagnant over the last few years. I have a novel manuscript that’s been sitting unedited for almost five years because I’m always too busy with Bartleby Snopes responsibilities. My daughters are rapidly growing into amazing little people, and I don’t want to miss an important milestone because I’m swamped in submissions that need a response within a week. I don’t have time to do all these things. If something has to go, it’s Bartleby Snopes.

So what happens now? That’s what people will care about the most. What happens to all the stories we’ve published? Will they vanish into the ether of the internet? As a writer, I’ve seen this happen all too often. At least a quarter of my published stories are no longer available. All that hard work, the time spent writing, editing, and submitting, all so people could click on a broken link on my publication list. I don’t want that to happen to others. After all, there are 600 writers to think about here.

The good news: those stories will all exist indefinitely on the website. We’ve already paid the hosting fees through 2020, and I plan to renew well beyond that. As long as it remains economically feasible, the website will remain alive. But it won’t be active. No new stories. No new designs. No new announcements. And certainly no calls for submission. Just an archive of what Bartleby Snopes was.

Perhaps another lingering question is, why not let someone else take over the magazine? This was considered, but here’s the reality: Bartleby Snopes was my singular vision. Having someone else take over would be an injustice to that person. Anyone willing to run their own literary magazine should mold it to their own vision from the beginning. Furthermore, if Bartleby Snopes were to continue, I would not be able to separate myself from it. It is a part of me, and having it continue under someone else would simply not be feasible for me. Finally, I believe Bartleby Snopes has accomplished everything it was meant to accomplish. This is the right time to say goodbye. 

What’s next for me? I’m going to write. I’m going to enjoy my family more. I’m going to read more. But not submissions. I don’t plan to read any submissions for a very long time.

Thank you to everyone who supported Bartleby Snopes. Someone out there may try to thank me for the gift of Bartleby Snopes, but I’m not the one who needs the thanks. Bartleby Snopes has enriched my writing and my place in the literary world more than I’ve done for anyone.

But before I go, I want to do a few more things. First, I want to publish stories through the end of the year. Shortly after this message goes live, we will begin accepting submissions for our final month of publication (please note that we will not offer feedback during the final two months of submissions). It’s quite possible that no one will want to submit. Why bother sending work to a publication that is admittedly closing soon? Beats me. I probably wouldn’t do it myself. But as an editor, I feel compelled to bring this to a fitting close. I hope the final story we publish will be some type of elegy. Maybe it will be a themed month. Send us your stories of farewell and departure.  

And wait, there’s more. Of course we’ll put out one more print/PDF issue in January 2017. It won’t be any bigger or better than our other issues. It won’t be some crazy special issue with all our favorite stories from the past 8 years. It won’t even be “The Final Issue.” It’ll just be Issue 15.

And one more thing. After we publish our final story, we’re going to have the Story of the Century contest. Every story we published since the very beginning will be eligible. The top vote getter will win $100. That person probably won’t become rich and famous, but it will sound cool to add “I won the Bartleby Snopes Story of the Century Contest” to the old bio.

I want to thank all the writers who’ve submitted, all the readers who’ve read, and, most of all, every staff member who has helped me get through those 17,000 submissions. Without my fellow editors, Bartleby Snopes wouldn’t have lasted half as long as it did. If Rick Taliaferro hadn’t offered to help out way back in 2010, the magazine would’ve been dead in the water before some of our biggest accomplishments. And without April Bradley, who’s done most of the heavy lifting over the past two years, the magazine would’ve tanked long before this announcement.

Speaking of April Bradley, she will continue to operate Women Who Flash Their Lit. It’s an amazing project, and it should be known that she’s been the driving force all along. I’m grateful that this project will continue to give voices to the many amazing women who write flash fiction. It doesn’t need Bartleby Snopes to exist.

So that’s it. This is the end. The last hurrah for Bartleby Snopes. Will I miss it? Of course. But if you asked me to keep doing it, I would tell you that I’d prefer not to.

8th Annual Dialogue Contest Winners

We received over 520 submissions and over 200 re-submissions to our 8th Annual Dialogue contest, making it the biggest year yet. After hundreds of hours of reading and voting, we are thrilled to announce our five winners:

1st Prize: Haikuzilla by Caleb Echterling ($1,722)
2nd Prize: Pillow Talk at the Water Cooler by Christina Dalcher ($574)
3rd Prize: Two AI Walk Into a Bar by Jessica Riches ($287)
4th Prize: Bad Stock by Tara Campbell by ($148.50)
5th Prize: We’re Ready When You Are by Sara Jacobelli ($138.50)

The winning stories will be published in Issue 15 of Bartleby Snopes, due out in January 2017.

Three of our winners were re-submissions this year. None of our winners had any previously publications in Bartleby Snopes.

Thank you to everyone who entered this year and in previous years, and a special thank you to guest judges Kathy Fish and Rebecca McDowell. We look forward to sharing the winning stories with the world.

Writing About a Spousal Fight

Guest Post by David S. Atkinson

Intro by Nathaniel Tower

When David S. Atkinson asked if I would read his latest short story collection, I didn’t hesitate. A chance to get a free advanced copy of a book I knew I would like by a great writer and good friend? There was no way I could turn that down. David is a treasured member of the literary community. Aside from being a voracious reader who can somehow read and digest every word of any book within 24 hours of receiving it, he’s one of the nicest and most supportive writers I’ve ever met. And he’s damn funny, which is on display both through his personal interactions and his fiction. Not Quite So Stories is one of the best collections I’ve read, and I’m not just saying that because we’re friends. I’m saying that because I mean it. Unlike David (who must have some sort of time-freezing device) I don’t have the time or dedication to read every book that gets sent my way, but David’s was one that I read and enjoyed thoroughly. And I probably owed it to him. Of course, after reading it, I feel like I owe him even more. Yup, it’s that good. 

If you haven’t read David’s collection, do so now. But before you do, stick around here and enjoy learning a little more about his process and inspiration for one of my favorite stories in the collection.

 

david atkinson

Writing about people one actually knows is always an uncertain territory. Conflicts with loved ones is particularly fraught with peril. After all, one never knows how the subject will react. Presuming one actually cares, the need to write the story must be weighed against how the person might feel, and what they might do about it.

Writing about a spousal conflict is even more of a minefield, especially if one wants the marriage to continue.

However, I did write about an area of my real life marital strife in my story “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012,” which is included in my new short story collection Not Quite so Stories. The issue centers on, as one might guess from the title, toilet paper. There are great disagreements in our household over toilet paper.

To explain, my wife is an “under the roll” believer, whereas I maintain that this is blasphemous. I take this quite seriously, which amuses my wife. Also, she doesn’t tend to replace empty rolls unless she herself needs them. Sometimes, she’ll just set a new roll nearby and start using it rather than actually placing it on the roll. This all bothers me much, much more than is reasonable. toilet paper war

So, it all went into the story. I went wild with it, taking things to ridiculously absurd extremes (I have never, I repeat never, glued toilet paper to a roll in order to ensure that there is always toilet paper on the holder, whether usable or not). Still, the core of our “debate” is there and I’m airing our dirty laundry in public.

Is that a good idea? Should I have done it? One school of thought, advocated by Anne Lamott, is to go ahead…but to: “give the character a small penis,” the idea being that the subject would never claim that the character is them. However, I didn’t want to give my wife any kind of penis at all. Further, I wouldn’t worry about my wife claiming the character is her. Rather, I would be concerned with her being hurt and thus damaging our relationship.

So, what did I do?

Well, first of all, I wrote about a relatively insignificant conflict. Arguments about toilet paper may get heated at home, but this is a fairly petty matter that isn’t particularly private. I think that helps. Also, the story is humorous. I’m trying to entertain and make people laugh, not get validation from the reading public regarding my position in the argument (I’m still right). Beyond that, I made sure to make the wife in the story more reasonable whereas the husband is a loveable yet ridiculously over serious about toilet paper protocol. In short, he’s a buffoon. Even if my wife read the story and felt it was an airing of a private marriage matter in public, I’m the one I made look ridiculous. All of those things work together to make me feel more okay in writing about something from my marriage.

david atkinsonNow, am I guaranteed to be okay? Absolutely not. However, I know what I’m comfortable with and I know my wife. I thought about whether or not I should write the story, and I thought about it deeply before I began writing…no matter how innocuous I thought it was. I considered her possible feelings, and considered them again before getting the story published. Whether or not I’m actually okay, I thought about it a great deal and decided I was. Personally, I think the fact that I considered her feelings mattered more than anything I happened to write.

Of course, it also probably helps that my wife doesn’t hang on every word I write. She’s got a lot of important things going in her life and I’m not the center of everything. Nor should I be. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure she’s read “A Brief Account of the Great Toilet Paper War of 2012” yet. We’ll have to see if my advice on this changes when she does.

Wish me luck.

 

David S. Atkinson is the author of Apocalypse All the Time (forthcoming 2017), Not Quite so Stories, The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (2015 National Indie Excellence Awards finalist in humor), and Bones Buried in the Dirt (2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards finalist, First Novel <80K). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/.

8th Annual Dialogue Contest Now Open

Our 8th 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 2017. Last year we awarded over $1900 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.

Submission and Readership Stats: 2015 Edition

2015 marked the 8th year of publication for Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine. We remain committed to serving the writing community by publishing the best stories we can find. We also believe in transparency. By sharing as much data as we can with our readers and writers, we believe we provide a better glimpse into the world of online publishing. This also helps prospective writers understand their chances of publication as well as the benefits of having a story featured in our magazine.

2015 Submission Stats

2015 saw a new record for submissions. We received 3,591 submissions this past year, including almost 2,000 stories to our feedback categories. This was a new record for us, up from the previous record of 3,325 submissions set during 2014. As we’ve seen in the past, the majority of writers request our feedback, which typically consists of two or three sentences about why we are passing on a particular submission. This should not be misinterpreted as commentary on what it will take for a story to be publishable. Rather, it represents our reason for not accepting a story for publication in our magazine.

Here’s a visual glimpse at our submissions from 2015:

2015 sub stats snip

Flash fiction was more popular than longer fiction this year, with 1,525 flash stories compared to 1,472 longer works of fiction.

What did we do with all these submissions? Our staff was quite busy this year. We cast 10,002 votes on those submissions, meaning each story was read by an average of 2.8 unique readers.

We accepted 85 submissions this year, putting our acceptance rate at 2.3%. This is down from last year’s 3.4% acceptance rate. Our goal is never to reduce our acceptance rate. Rather, we simply intend to publish the work that meets our needs and tastes.

2015 Readership Stats

Submissions and published stories mean nothing if no one is looking at them. 2015 also saw record readership for the magazine. During 2015, over 36,000 visitors viewed over 153,000 pages during over 58,000 sessions on the website. This is a 12% increase in sessions and a 14% increase in users over the previous records.

readership stats 2015

It can be difficult to gauge the readership of an online magazine. We know that many of these 36,000 visitors were not active readers of our stories each month. Many of them were writers looking to be published in our magazine. Unfortunately, many writers seeking publication don’t bother to read the stories featured in that magazine. But we also know that many visitors came back to the site, and we know that our stories were read frequently and in strong numbers. Our most popular stories had over 3,000 unique pageviews this year. Our PDF issues were downloaded over 1,000 times during the course of the year. In other words, if we publish your story, people will read it.

Changes for 2016

We’re making a few changes in the coming year. We hope to bring more readers and writers to the website. And we hope to continue to make a positive mark on the literary community. Some of these changes include:

  • Adjusting our publication schedule from 2 stories per week to at least 1 story per week.
  • Making our $25 Story of the Month prize a permanent fixture of the magazine.
  • Publishing special themed issues (TBA).
  • Publishing more artwork to accompany our stories.
  • Hosting special forums, including Women Who Flash Their Lit.
  • Expanding our staff, including adding dedicated social media managers and artwork editors.

We’ll be announcing many more exciting changes this year, so be sure to come back often. Of course, the main reason to come back is to read amazing new fiction.

We’ll be taking January off from publishing (we’ll still be reading and responding to submissions) while we finalize Issue 14 of our print magazine. Look for the new issue soon.

Thank you for making Bartleby Snopes a staple of the literary world. We look forward to hearing from you in 2016.

Building a House of Stars with Tawnysha Greene (Contributor Series Interview Series #9)

Back in 2012, we published Tawnysha Greene’s 275-word story “Wilderness.” It was a wonderful piece that said so much in those few words. Three years later, Greene’s debut novel, which features the same family from “Wilderness,” is receiving rave reviews. And rightfully so. We were lucky enough to get the chance to chat with Tawnysha about the novel. Here’s what she had to say:

A House Made of Stars is a beautiful title. Tell us about the inspiration. 

Thank you! The title came from research I did on the constellations my narrator would look to in the sky. I was intrigued by the Greek mythology behind these constellations and the stories I found ended up being an excellent parallel for the novel. A House Made of Stars Cover

One of the constellations my narrator looks to often is Cepheus, named after a king who chained his daughter to the sea. It also resembles a tilted house, and I imagined this image to be illustrative of the narrator’s own family. Her family is like that house: headed by a powerful father, but also broken and askew.

What did you find most challenging about telling this story through a young narrator?  

One of the most difficult things was knowing how much emotion to allow my character to feel. With the severity of the abuse and her young age, it would have been easy to make her very emotional throughout the book, but I was afraid that this would damage her ability to tell this story. So I eliminated as much emotion from her as possible. The lack of emotion would also be telling, because it would show that these occurrences of violence were not out of the ordinary for her.

However, there were some scenes in which I made her too stoic, so in some of the later revisions, I added more hints of emotion for her–fear, anger, and happiness–to better humanize her and allow her to connect with readers. I hope that I found a good medium.

This is a fantastic book, but it’s not an easy read. How do you handle writing such difficult subject matter?

With topics like poverty, mental illness, and abuse, it is easy to tiptoe around these subjects, because it would be simpler to just sweep them under the rug, but we need to talk about these issues.

My narrator’s mother does this often in A House Made of Stars. She lies to cover up their money struggles and her children’s abuse. She teaches her children to do the same to protect the narrator’s father. However, in doing so, she keeps the family trapped in this cycle of struggle that continues until someone has the courage to break it. These issues and the stigma surrounding them silence far too many families, because they are afraid to speak up.

I owed it to my narrator to speak up. So I wrote about poverty, mental illness, and abuse in the opposite way her mother would have described them. I wrote about them honestly. I wrote about them with a sense of rawness that could only be described by a child. I wanted these scenes to be hard to read so that even if you wanted to turn away from them, you couldn’t. Because we shouldn’t turn away from these things. We need to see them, we need to hear these voices, and we need to know when to speak up ourselves.

Although most of the reviews for A House Made of Stars have been overwhelmingly positive, you did get a 2-star review on Goodreads that said, “I liked this book but it was sad and hopeless.” What do you say to a reader who views this story as sad and hopeless? And how does a review like this fuel you as a writer? 

The book is sad and conveys some hopeless things, so I don’t disagree with this reader there. However, the book is also one about hope, strength, courage, and resilience, and I couldn’t have conveyed these things without the sadness and devastation that came before it. Triumph cannot be fully acknowledged without also acknowledging the struggles it took it get there.

I try not to pay attention to ratings, because I know that it is impossible to please everyone. Readers all have different expectations, but even so, I am grateful to this reader for the two stars and the review. At least this reader gave the book a chance in reading it, and I appreciate that.

I first became familiar with your work through your submissions to Bartleby Snopes. How do lit mags play a role in your career as a novelist? What do you think is the value in lit mags as a whole right now? 

Literary magazines are an invaluable asset to writers, because they allow one to make connections in the literary world and gain a readership.

I could not have written and published A House Made of Stars if not for the generosity of the editors who published pieces of the novel beforehand. Often, my work still needed revision when I submitted these excerpts to literary journals, and many of these editors had some wonderful ideas for making the narrative better and the characters more vivid, so I am very grateful for the lessons they have taught me.

These editors have alTawnysha Greene Author Photoso been extraordinarily kind and generous in promoting the work of their former contributors, too. Several of them have published reviews of the book and posted interviews as well as promoted the book on their social media. The literary community is a wonderful family, and I am so appreciative their support.

Bartleby Snopes is no exception. You have given me so much help in your editorial feedback, and your generosity in writing and publishing this interview is so humbling. Thank you.

What’s next for Tawnysha Greene? I’ve heard you’re working on a new novel. Any spoilers?

I am working on a new novel, a sequel that takes place twenty years after A House Made of Stars has ended. As an adult survivor of abuse, the narrator grapples with issues such as healing, forgiveness, and hope, and this is a difficult journey for her. I am in the first draft stage of the novel and am still figuring out how her story will end, but I am looking forward to learning from this book and everything my narrator still has to teach me.

Tawnysha, thank you for chatting with us. Congratulations on the success of A House Made of Stars, and good luck on the next book. 

Tawnysha Greene teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee. Her work has appeared in PANK, Bellingham Review, and Weave Magazine. Her first novel, A House Made of Stars, was released by Burlesque Press in 2015. Find out more about her her: www.tawnyshagreene.com

Off Somewhere with Z.Z. Boone (Contributor Interview Series #7)

In September 2013, Z.Z. Boone’s “Kat” appeared in Bartleby SnopesIt was a unique story with an engaging voice that clearly demonstrated Boooff somewhere zz boonene’s talents as a fiction writer. Two years later, Boone is released his first collection of short fiction, Off Somewhere, available on November 17th through Whitepoint Press.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Z.Z. about his new book and the status of literary magazines. Here’s what Z.Z. had to say.

Tell us a little about how Off Somewhere came together. Did you set out to write a collection, or is this a collection of what you wrote?

I’m not big on planning. It’s kind of how I write. One sentence and then a second one based on the first. So I had all these stories that I’d written over the years, and I thought about how cool it would be if I could find somebody to publish them. A book that I could give people that would make future gift giving a snap. So I sent the collection out to every agent and every publisher in existence and I got pretty much the same response: No. Except then I lucked upon the brilliant Lisa De Niscia at Whitepoint Press and she apparently liked the stories and decided to chance it.

Character-wise, Off Somewhere feels like a pretty eclectic collection. Where do you find the inspiration for your characters?

I read once that if you see a face that you don’t recognize in a dream, it’s because it’s a combination of all the different faces floating around inside your head. I think for most writers it’s the same with their characters. I might start with someone I know well because it makes the dialogue easier to write. Then I’ll throw in a few characteristics from some stranger I spotted this morning. Maybe I’ll call back that guy from high school who used to throw my books down the stairs. Or the woman in the Amtak “quiet car” who wouldn’t stop taking on her phone. I’ll mix them together and see what I get.

Who is your favorite character from the collection? If you could punch one character in the face, who would it be?

Well obviously I’m not going to punch any female characters in the face because that’s how a guy gets in trouble. So I guess it would be the narrator in “Neutral Ground” who tries to manipulate Bianca into becoming a little less black, a bit less African American. The dumb bastard has love so close at hand, but he’s like Aylmer in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Unsatisfied with near-perfection.

The bullshit answer regarding my favorite character is that they’re all my favorite. But I read the story “Pitching” a lot, and each time I do my heart goes out to Patrick’s unnamed brother, that poor guy destined to always live in the shadows. Even when he manages to save his brother’s pregnant, cast-aside ex-girlfriend from humiliation, he fails at winning her devotion.

Your stories often mix humor with some rather delicate situations. How do you create this balance without disrupting the integrity of what you are trying to achieve with the story?  

I guess I’m a genius.

Seriously though, I just tell a story, or more accurately I let the story tell itself. If I’m lucky, if the stars are aligned that day, I wind up with something that looks like real life but is hopefully more tense, more immediate. And like real life, one minute your heart is broken because the person you love has just flipped you off, and the next minute you see a fat guy slip on a sheet of ice and you wet your pants laughing.

I first became aware of your work when you submitted “Kat” to Bartleby Snopes. What role do lit mags currently play in your own writing career and in the literary world in general?

I’m insanely in love with literary magazines. I’m also rather old-school, so I especially get off on print. I subscribe to a bunch, and when I see that fresh copy of New Ohio Review, or 2 Bridges, or Eleven Eleven, I’m practically orgasmic. I can get, say, a collection of Alice Munro stories and love every one of them, but by now I know what to expect. Not so with lit mags. Voice, tone, and style are as varied as the treats in Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory.

What’s next for Z.Z. Boone?

As I said, I’m not big on planning. I’m hoping to have a second collection of short stories before too terribly long, but the creative art of writing has a tremendously large backdoor and a writer never knows what might walk in.

zz booneZ.Z. Boone lives in Connecticut with novelist Tricia Bauer and their daughter, Lia. His work has appeared in literary magazines including Bartleby Snopes, Berkeley Fiction Review, the Adroit Journal, the Roanoke Review, Smokelong Quarterly, The MacGuffin, and Weave. Z.Z. currently teaches creative writing at Western Connecticut State University. He can be checked out at http://zzboone.wix.com/fiction.

It’s Not Over for Uzodinma Okehi (Contributor Interview Series #6)

We first met Uzodinma Okehi a few years ago when we launched the world’s first issue of Post-Experimental literature. One of our favorite stories from that special issue was Okehi’s “Cumulo-Nimbus Tonight!” When we found out Okehi’s  Rocbio2debut novel was being published–and that it contained this phenomenal story–we immediately wanted to read it. If the joy of reading this novel weren’t enough, we had the pleasure of chatting with Okehi about his work. Here’s what he had to say.

Your narrator in Over for Rockwell talks about how it takes 10 years to master anything. How long did it take you to write the book? Do you feel like a master?

Yeah, the 10 year thing. I think that was the pop-science theory du jour at the time when I started those stories. I know Malcom Gladwell delves into it in one of his books . . . But I feel like I was reading that particular tidbit everywhere, in dover for rockwellifferent magazines, books, all over the place. You know, it’s a seductive idea. And I think it’s fairly true, you spend enough time and all, just that there’s a lot of other factors. As far as Rockwell is concerned though, it took maybe 7 or 8 years to write. Way too long basically, but I guess I’m prone to distraction. What I would say about it, is that if you spend enough every-day time, even as an average joe, you can develop a skill set, a kind of confidence, with writing, in a certain style, about certain subjects. And once you have that momentum, you’d hope you wouldn’t really need to compare yourself to everyone to demonstrate mastery. More like, with those ten years, you’ve mapped a territory for yourself, it’s hard work, but now you can enjoy it. Little by little, you try and push the envelope of what you think you can do . . .

Blue Okoye draws comics, but we never really get to see any of his comics. Did you ever consider making the book more visual?

I talked about that with my editor, (Elizabeth Ellen). The main issue was that my art-game is still pretty underdeveloped. I mean, I can draw a little, I did the cover, for instance, but it must have taken me 4 or 5 months of drawing, redrawing every day to finish that thing. Seriously. Also, at this point my comics stuff doesn’t really flow that well. The backstory is I started drawing comics mainly because that’s what I was writing about. But I didn’t want to bog the writing down with a whole bunch of bad drawing and nonsense. Hopefully in the next couple of years, I can hit my stride and be able to nicely integrate more art with the prose stuff. We’ll see. That would be gratifying.

Can you draw a comic for us? 

Ok, here’s an example of how deep I’d get into something without really figuring out how to have it make sense. The “Strandzig” pic is a cover pitch I did for a zine that was going around the bookstore where I work. The other thing is a page from a five or six-page strip I did. Same character. Or I think I got five or six pages done before abandoning it. And what’s that giant concrete ball thing he’s got attached to his waist? I have no fucking idea. How is it just floating like that? Why is he chasing a giant, (badly drawn) peacock?

Strandzigcrop pg-3crop

A better question is why wouldn’t he be chasing a giant peacock? It’s often difficult to separate a first-person narrator from the author. How did you draw from your own experiences to create this character?

Right. That’s always the big question, so let me dig in a little. And, actually, talking like this really helps me clear up my position on it in my own head . . . I just think the whole first person, coming-of-age, art-actualization thing—when people have these strong opinions against it—I always think, well, it’s just a type of genre writing. Like a detective story, or Sci-fi, or whatever. You may not read espionage thrillers per say, but why make a point to actually despise them? As with any genre, there’s the well-executed stuff and there’s stuff that’s not as good. Like literary writing in and of itself. My particular axe to grind, is that I was surprised to get to grad school, to New York, and discover there is, or was, some kind of movement or something against writing with first-person narrators. Or that people consider literary writing somehow “more real” than genre stuff. I think you should never lose sight of the fact that all of this is just entertainment, crafted with an audience in mind, whether that’s somebody’s rehab memoir or a Disney comic book . . . To bring it back to your question though, I think you’re always drawing from or on your own experiences, no matter whose point of view you’re writing from. On the other hand, I also think the kind of voyeuristic hook of a first-person narrator does always makes it feel like everything actually happened. I will say, most of the stuff in the book happened in some shape or form. It is fiction though, to be clear. I’m not on that James Frey tip. That’s me pulling stories from everywhere and pouring it into a single character. Stuff that happened to me, to my friends, me overhearing other people’s conversations at work, on the train, their wild stories. Bits from movies, TV shows, rap songs. Other books, definitely. I suppose that’s the textbook way you’re supposed to do it as a writer. Creative fiction 101, right? Write what you know, keep your eyes and ears open . . .

For the record, the one story in the book that did go down, scene for scene, exactly the way I wrote it, was Streets of Rage. All of that really happened. That huge, crazy streetfight in the East Village in Manhattan. The Chinese restaurant, those cops grilling me. First time I’d ever been in the middle of anything like that. That whole summer, in particular, 2005, month-to-month, was crazy . . .

The book ends with Cumulo-Nimbus Tonight!, which appeared in the Bartleby Snopes Post-Experimentalism issue. Would you characterize this book as post-experimental?

Well, I’m flattered you picked that story. But I’ll be honest. I feel I always only have like a loose-handshake sort of grasp on these  concepts. When I was in school, I took a course called The Postmodern Novel. Something like that. I thought it sounded cool. I thought it would be cool to be part of some new movement. And I guess I can tell you, based on that class, that Paul Auster and Don Dellilo are, I guess, acclaimed masters of that shit. I’ve just looked it up on Wikipedia now, and the only simple answer seems to be that Postmodernism is all about being skeptical of Modernism. Which was a movement skeptical of Enlightenment thinking. And on back. So, if the implication is to ask if my book is somehow critiquing so-called “experimental” writing, or “concept” stories, then I’d say I wasn’t specifically trying to chop anything down. When I read other writers’ stories I am always thinking about what I’d do differently. But I don’t critique other people’s writing. I try my best to stay away from that. I never end up feeling qualified enough to join any sort of movement. Nor am I a teacher or an editor. Or a critic. That’s not really my bag.

The book comes in a very compact form. Do you think that contributes to the overall effect of the story?

Format is everything. Absolutely. What I initially submitted to Hobart was a 65-page zine I’d put together using InDesign. Complete with the clip art stuff and front cover. That original thing was about the same size as the finished book. Because after years of doing zines, I’d finally landed on that size as a good metric for my stories, with larger print. I wanted it to be dense. But I also wanted a quick read, something people might really rip through. Not to over-explain, but it’s not just supposed to be a guy talking about drawing, I was actually trying to delve into the sort of structural mechanics of comic books and how the format is almost an engine, generating momentum, excitement. I could go on about it, but I don’t think a detailed explanation is really going to help my case. It either works or it doesn’t.

I first became familiar with your work through your submission to Bartleby Snopes. How would you describe the role of lit mags in your writing and the literary world as a whole today?

I get the sense that the scene isn’t considered as important as it may have once been . . . I’m a little out of loop with that big picture stuff though. But yeah, I’m a lit-mag guy, for sure. I think it’s similar to mixtapes in hip-hop. Just like there’s gotta be a mainstream, there’s always also got to be that semi-underground space where unknown writers can flex their muscles and build on new ideas. Especially now, especially online, with flash stuff. I had a good run of about a year or two where I had stories up at least once a month, out somewhere in some lit-mag, website or journal, and Rockwell is basically a collection of that stuff. I don’t think the need for outlets like that will ever completely fade away.

What’s next for Uzodinma Okehi?

All this is new to me. First book, first time on tour. Meanwhile, I’m still grinding, trying to keep writing and drawing every day, even if it’s just an hour or two. I’ve got a family, so it’s less about any big plan, and more just balancing things out. And the goal isn’t necessarily to quit my day-job either. Then again, if I can find a way to make a little dough from comics, and keep writing books, well, who knows? Overall, I’m pushing forty, I work at a bookstore, and I’ve got my first book coming on an indie press. There’s no cocaine or Lamborghinis involved, but I’m pretty thrilled about it.

Congratulations on the book. If you’re reading this, go buy a copy so he can buy a Lamborghini. We won’t endorse the cocaine.

Bio: Uzodinma Okehi spent 2 years handing out zines on the subway. Wasn’t as fun as he thought. His work has appeared in Pank, Hobart, Bartleby Snopes, and many, many other places, no doubt, you’ve never heard of. He has an MFA in writing from New York University. He lives in Brooklyn. His son is 8 yrs old, smiles a lot, (too much?), and will absolutely, cross you over and drain a jumper in your face.

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.

Distant Echoes with Gargi Mehra (Contributor Interview Series #3)

One of our favorite stories from 2012 was Gargi Mehra’s “Social Not-Working.” Gargi’s writing made an immediate impact on us, and we’re thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss a new project. Here’s what she had to say.

BS: Gargi, it’s been a few years since you appeared in Bartleby Snopes. Catch us up to speed. What have you been up to  Gargi Mehraduring that time?

GM: Writing and getting published, though not as regularly as I’d like! It’s taken me a few years to develop a constant pattern of getting down words every single day. My story getting published in Bartleby Snopes, which has always been one of my favorite literary venues, gave me the impetus I needed to keep going.

BS: Tell us a bit about your involvement with Distant Echoes. How did this collection come to be?

GM: Around the end of 2013, I was in the throes of writing a story when it occurred to me that if only I could commit to writing one short story each month I’d have a substantial body of work by the end of the year. Luckily my brilliant writer friend Radhika Meghanathan had the same idea but was ahead of me. She had formed a group, and all I had to do was join in. She laid down the ground rules, established deadlines, and we were off!

BS: Distant Echoes seems like a fascinating project. I haven’t read the entire collection yet, but your story “A Matter of the Heart” really struck me. What was the inspiration for this piece? Distant_Echoes

GM: Many years ago, I read a newspaper story about a woman abandoning her infant and husband, and eloping with a man she’d fallen in love with. I wondered under what circumstances a mother and a wife would do such a thing. This story is my version of that news item.

BS: I can’t help but notice the connections between the main character and your own life. You’re both programmers and both mothers. Obviously there’s a line that marks the difference between the writer and the narrator. How does personal experience impact your work? 

GM: Most of my fiction is based on “write what you know.” I chose to set this story in the place I know best – the office, and to some extent, Singapore. What was difficult was imagining a mother leaving behind a reasonably stable life in pursuit of a man, but I hope I’ve captured her mental and physical journey appropriately.

BS: Other than your own story, of course, what’s your favorite piece in this collection?

GM: I really like Shruthi Rao’s story “Fuddy-Duddies.” The ambiguity of the protagonist’s gender gives the story a certain spin. It’s a great look at the attitudes of policemen in small-town India.

The other one I like is the first story of the collection, Vrinda Baliga’s “Paying the Piper.” I love stories set in the software world and this one puts forth a brilliant idea that is scarily enough not too far from the real world.

BS: What do you see as the value of lit mags in today’s publishing world?

GM: For writers lit mags are gold. They’re the best places to gain a foothold in the writing and publishing spheres. It gives confidence to a writer just starting out when their work is accepted by someone other than family and friends.

As a reader I love the daily dose of stories I get through lit mags. In fact I might say that more of my reading is on lit mags nowadays, maybe more than novels and nonfiction.

BS: What writers have influenced your own work?

GM: Among the writers of classics it would be Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse. From the modern writers I adore the works of Eoin Colfer and Jasper Fforde. I admire that Alexander McCall Smith writes a thousand words of publishable fiction per hour. The short stories of Lavanya Sankaran, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro and George Saunders inspire me to try and match their standard.

BS: So what’s next for Gargi Mehra?

GM: More short stories, essays and I’m also outlining a novel. I have written two novels earlier but I have consigned them to the department of ‘practice novels’ now. I hope the third one does the trick!

BS: Thanks for taking the time to chat about your writing and your life. Good luck with Distant Voices and whatever is coming next.

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