The Masters Review Blog

May 21

Reading Through the Awards: The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brought together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, recently awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Award for best fiction and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity.”


Ben Lerner’s third and already highly celebrated novel, The Topeka School, is, like Lerner’s previous works of fiction, both heavily autobiographical and heavily concerned with language itself, how language functions and how it breaks down, how it stands in for other modes of expression and how we express ourselves with and without it. The book follows Adam Gordon—who also narrates Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station—as a high school senior and national debate whiz, plus his mother and father, both researchers at a psychoanalysis clinic called the Foundation, as the three of them navigate Adam’s transition into a particularly American kind of adulthood, or, as Lerner might argue, “adolescence without end.”

There’s a ton to admire here. Lerner’s characters, for one, constantly observe others in a way that displays the uniqueness of both observer and observee—Klaus, a sort of grandfather figure to Adam, for instance, speaks in a voice “like an imitation of itself; Klaus was an actor bemused to be playing Klaus.” Adam sees Peter Evanson, his private debate tutor, both as “an accomplished elder” and as “a species of man-child.” Lerner’s intimate knowledge of the debate world is riveting, from observations about each debater’s flaws and styles to the explanation of “the spread,” in which a debater packs as many arguments as possible into a given timeframe. Even the smallest bit characters and interstitial vignettes come alive on the page, and Lerner, a poet’s poet, can’t help but sketch them in breathtaking language. The most striking passage in the novel lands in the penultimate chapter, when, after Adam performs oral sex on his girlfriend, she explains her desire to be with him and gradually slips into a surreal, associative monologue in which the distinction between speech and narration breaks down. Somehow the effect draws the reader in rather than dragging them out. It’s beautiful to see that kind of craft at work.

The overriding sensation here, however, is that this is an Important Book about Important Things. When we read about the way Adam displaces his adolescent male aggression into the act of debate—“the verbal equivalent of forearms and elbows”—we’re to understand this isn’t just about Adam’s aggression, but the adolescent male aggression of America itself, an aggression that seeps into nearly every interaction in the novel. While Lerner draws these confrontations with a clear and insightful eye, the weight of his language never lets you forget that although he may be writing about people—even himself—what matters in the end is the language itself, the argument, the spread.

Benjamin Van Voorhis


Ben Lerner’s newest novel, The Topeka School addresses just how far men have come fucking up society. At the core of this novel is this question of how did we get here? Set in the late nineties in the suburbs of Topeka, Kansas we follow Adam, a pretentious debate prodigy whose parents work at a cultish psychiatric hospital called The Foundation. His father  a psychiatrist who caters to “lost boys.” His mother a famous feminist author.

The story is told through intersecting points of view: Adam and his parents, Jonathan and Jane. And while at times his father’s narrative feels like a phantom appendage to the story, meandering in the way so many of our own fathers do when they attempt a story, we are grounded in the relationship between mother and son. In a letter written to Adam, detailing his parent’s unraveling relationship, we learn about The Men who call her at all hours for writing a book that has destroyed their own marriages. And like so many men in this novel, the blame falls on anyone but themselves.

And in a way, this novel is structured very much like The Men: unsolicited calls ringing abruptly at all hours of the night. We do not know whose perspective or time or space we will get with the next chapter, but we pick up the call anyways. Is it because we are lonely? Because we want to be told everything will be okay from the other end? This novel is a historical party line, or in this day and age a group text, a Zoom meeting, Facetime; a collection of narratives that blend together to tell Adam Gordon’s bildungsroman, straddling the line between hyper intellectual and hyper masculine. It is this balancing act that holds the novel together and keeps one reading until the final page. Will Adam answer the call or will he be alone, late in the night breathing heavily into the speaker?

Sean Frede


My initial thoughts were about the overall flow, which is extremely stagnated in the beginning. It was like I wanted a shorter sentence—or sometimes the opposite, with a longer one. Also, using “had had” has never looked good in a written form, which is why most people avoid it. These are more technical and nitpicky things. I was surprised to be fussing over them as much as I did, and this likely stems from the fact that the writing itself isn’t nearly as intriguing and clever as it wants to be. It is, overall, horrendously boring.

I began to wonder if I wasn’t listening to one of my own uncles droning on as much the stepfather in Adam’s section, and in that first chapter alone, I had to re-read passages. Then I slogged through the mock trials segment, became intrigued by the use of first-person in Jonathan’s section (I did like Klaus), and it doesn’t pick up again until Jonathan makes another entry. Jane’s sections do not hold the intrigue of her husband’s narration, and her opening thoughts seem very pandering to me (and it likely wouldn’t have read that way if it was written well).

After finishing the novel, I realized that Lerner is excellent at composing a male voice, but his female utterances need practice. Also, how does us knowing what gross thing Adam (Jane and Jonathan’s son) did to his penis as a child at all relevant to the story? Sure, Jane says it was funny and then upsetting, and that’s it. Another one of the those deeply personal anecdotes that should be reserved between close comrades, rather than a wide audience, because that’s what we as the readers are. We are an audience watching a mundane display of characters float around in a pool of medical and psychological rhetoric. By the end, I cared very little for any of them, and it takes over a hundred pages for Darren’s relevancy to actually unfold. This novel is messy and monotonous, even if it is technically proficient.

S.N. Valadez


Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, much like the novels of Rachel Cusk, often introduces the reader to characters and situations solely so the protagonist can respond in page-and-a-half paragraphs of thought that deepen the book’s themes in a writing style that feels not unlike a fictionalized essay. Still, Lerner does lean into story here, shifting perspective and time period until the characters and their relationships, by maybe halfway through the novel, start to feel like they sort of matter. Which isn’t to say that the book fails. In fact, it manages to take on a myriad of complicated ideas surrounding the use and manipulation of language, politics, family, memory, and the severely divided ethos and background of right and left-leaning America. One of the book’s largest successes lies in its sensitive (albeit somewhat flat) portrayal of Darren, the bullied kid turned violent teenager turned MAGA protester.

With so much thematic depth, it becomes tempting to assign this novel the hackneyed workshop phrase: it’s trying to do too much. The thing is, though, that Lerner accomplishes a hell of a lot in under three hundred pages; my head was spinning in a hundred different directions each time I flipped the page and is spinning still after closing the book. The novel is nothing if not intellectually stimulating, and it succeeds and excels on those terms. Lerner may not allow for a reading experience that feels entirely inviting or immersive or character driven (though it is certainly all of these things in flashes), but he’s written a book that pushes the boundaries of what a novel can accomplish and how.

Josh Olivier

Curated by Brandon Williams

May 20

Craft: “A Sense of Time and Place” by Courtney Harler

Introducing our newest craft essay! “A Sense of Time and Place” is a wonderful essay on setting in fiction from our very own reader, Courtney Harler. Settle in as she dissects the mastery of setting in stories from Bender, Barthelme, Munro, Davis, and Joyce.

Most importantly, a strong setting enables readers to connect with characters, and that connection acts as the living, beating heart of the successful short story.

A believable setting is crucial to any short story. Broadly, an intimate, authentic sense of time and place is necessary to fully develop the overall narrative arc and solidify the greater significance of the story. The stories of Aimee Bender, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and James Joyce illuminate the range of clever ways in which setting can function as a critical element. Most importantly, a strong setting enables readers to connect with characters, and that connection acts as the living, beating heart of the successful short story. To begin, let’s take a step back and look at the craft of setting from an objective view. Our goal here will be to study how the writer’s specific choices eventually coalesce into art.

In her surreal story “Tiger Mending,” Bender uses interesting juxtapositions of place to create a sense of otherworldliness. For example, the narrator’s smart sister first attends med school, then withdraws and later enrolls in sewing school. The parallel between sewing skin and sewing clothes is apparent, but it’s the opposing settings—the two very different schools—that generate the most interest and tension for the reader at the beginning of the story. Also, in terms of narrative flow, the sewing class allows the narrator’s sister to be observed and then recruited by her future employers (another set of sisters), an event that sets the plot in motion, quite literally, as the seemingly inseparable sisters then travel by airplane to the new job site.

Likewise, the narrator’s dead-end job at Burger King only seems drearier when juxtaposed with an exciting trip to Malaysia. The narrator says, “That night, she called me up and told me to quit my job, which was what I’d been praying for for months—that somehow I’d get a magical phone call telling me to quit my job because I was going on an exciting vacation.”[1] In the previous passage, the key word is “magical,” which helps set the tone for the rest of the story. Readers are then introduced to the bewildering images of “tiger mending” inspired by Amy Cutler’s painting, but we are also permitted to witness the relationship arc of the sisters—its initial cohesiveness and eventual disintegration. The place where the tigers are mended becomes an actual, physical turning point in their lives through Bender’s magical realism.

To continue reading “A Sense of Time and Place” click here.

[1] Bender, Aimee. “Tiger Mending.” The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 28. Nook Book.

May 18

Featured Fiction: “Woodpeckers Peck to Establish Territory in the Spring” by Sherrie Flick

Today we are thrilled to share with you this excellent new flash from current Flash Fiction Contest judge, Sherrie Flick! If you’re still looking for inspiration for our contest which closes on the 31st of May, look no further: Flick’s “Woodpeckers Peck to Establish Territory in the Spring” moves from scene to memory with affecting seamlessness as our narrator recalls a traumatic event in her childhood. Read on:

He said, “Go ahead and yell for your mom.” She did. Then birds chirping, the world continuing on without Janice. Rat-tat-tat.

The tree branches that run along Janice’s path twist and loop like licorice whips, as she circumnavigates her way through a patch of wild garlic mustard and knotweed. A woodpecker drums a little rat-tat-tat … rat-tat-tat. It’s mid-March and the forest, dormant and muddy, has lost a tree here and there, giant roots upended from so much rain. A trunk blocks her way. Janice grabs at the bark, swings her legs over to the other side. The whole valley is subdued and still. Except the woodpecker. His exuberance is unbearable.

Janice hasn’t been on this trail for years. As she walks, it transports her back to a time when she wandered in these woods and her mother cooked her meals—gravies and roasts and a soggy green bean smell in the kitchen as Janice pushed the side door open. What she remembers is her mother’s back, curved toward a pot of steam, a wooden spoon, early evening light tipping through the window, a radio bubbling a few crackling polkas somewhere nearby.

Today Janice has some loose change in her front pocket, a cell phone in her back pocket, and a sinking feeling, even though these woods make her feel weightless, a little lightheaded.

Rat-tat-tat.

To continue reading “Woodpeckers Peck to Establish Territory in the Spring” click here.

May 15

Litmag Roadmap: Connecticut

Next stop, Connecticut! Thankfully virtual travel is still an option for us. We’re hanging around in New England, still, and we think you’ll appreciate the literary scene here.

If you drove across Connecticut and literary magazines were like McDonald’s or Starbucks, you would pass one every ten or eleven miles. The state isn’t huge but it’s crawling with lit mags. Maybe it’s the state’s pockets of local publishing history and star-studded visitors’ log full of famous writers past and present, as this article at LitHub explains. Maybe it’s because of the Connecticut Writing Project, a statewide program to highlight kids’ writing starting in kindergarten. Maybe it’s because they’ve been able to successfully implement their literary heritage into their tourism—there’s even an app for that. Did you need more reasons? Here they are:

Connecticut River Review

This is a poetry-only lit mag published by the Connecticut Poetry Society, an organization that seems like a pretty big deal in terms of hosting and supporting literary efforts all over the state. We’d be remiss not to mention them just as you’d be remiss to think you can’t or don’t write poetry.

Here

Another poetry lit mag—this one based out of Eastern Connecticut State University’s undergrad department — but it has active social media accounts running across the board so it’s legit. Also it’s themed around the question, “What does it mean to be here, truly, or to have been here, back from “there,” against whatever odds and forces?” so it’s the perfect add-on for your road trip reflections.

Naugatuck River Review

This independently run, biannual print journal publishes solely narrative poetry—poems that tell a story. They also host one of two narrative poetry contests (the other put on by, you guessed it, Narrative magazine) and probably the poetry contest in the country to focus on narrative style. This is a niche perfect for the prose writer who’s looking to mix things up a bit.

Noctua

This lit mag belongs to the Southern Connecticut State University MFA Program, who opened submissions to writers outside the program in 2012. They accept submissions one time a year, each winter, so put this unsuspecting little publication on your calendar for next fall and send them something you come up with when they days get short and it’s time to get cozy.

Dogwood

Strong like the tree and pretty like the flower, this lit mag gets published by the faculty at Fairfield University, a small Jesuit school near the coast. If that all doesn’t sound dreamy enough for you then check out their annual contests ($1000 prizes in each category!). The reading window for contest and non-contest submissions opens July 1st, so get your latest piece swimsuit-ready (editorially speaking… body-positivity wise, go hit the beach and celebrate yourself in the sun ASAP!).

Freshwater

This lit mag is hosted by the Asnuntuck Community College but open to the public—a cool move to create a bridge between campus community and global community. Pretty simple stuff: they published poetry and prose and are open for submissions in the fall so students can work to get the actual mag published by May.

The Yale Lit Mag

I don’t know how I missed that Yale has a lit mag—probably because it’s published by Yale undergraduates; I apologize for my postgrad classism. They publish two branches: “The Little,” their online blog of interviews and writer thoughts and such, and “The Signature,” a classy PDF lit mag. They appear to be making a comeback from a brief publishing hiatus with a spring 2020 publication, so keep your eyes peeled for increased momentum on the Yale Lit Mag front.

New Haven Review

A sturdy lit mag that is, in part, based on a mission “to resuscitate the art of the book review,” New Haven Review knows how to roll with the punches and adapt to whatever a changing literary world has to offer. Their book review section has morphed, recently, into a local theater / cabaret review that proves just as fascinating to explore. Their editorial staff tips their hand at their own subjectivity and welcomes “entertaining cover letters.” Mostly importantly to the possibly-currently-furloughed writer, NHR offers paying submissions—they’re currently closed until they catch up on their backlog, but at “at least $500 for prose pieces” it’s worth bookmarking and

Long River Review

We end on the state’s big fish: the University of Connecticut’s esteemed and hustling Long River Review. With an ambitious goal—“We publish what people will want to read next rather than what they are reading now”—this undergrad publication delivers. They’ve even switched to virtual launch parties in the face of COVID-19, making sure no author goes uncelebrated. Subscribe to their Instagram while you wait for their next submission window to open.

by Melissa Hinshaw

 

May 13

“Mythbusting: When “Not Writing” is the Best Thing a Writer Can Do” by Katey Schultz

In a new special series, Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War and Still Come Home, debunks common and pervasive myths about writing. You may have heard at some point that you’re not a real writer unless you write every day. Think again:

When “Not Writing” is the Best Thing a Writer Can Do

It’s true that my first book, Flashes of War, was rejected over 40 times before being accepted by Loyola University Maryland, and going on to win IndieFab Book of the Year in 2013. It was even studied at the United States Air Force Academy and is still used in classrooms today, from the University of Washington to Germany, and beyond. It’s also true that I wrote my novel Still Come Home on “a hope and a prayer,” gut burned, but came out on top with a second book anyway—though I never would have guessed the hurdles I’d have to jump.

The truth is, I sent Flashes of War out way too soon. And there’s a good chance I could have saved myself a lot of heartache with Still Come Home if I’d just slowed down and gotten real about what’s really happening inside the publishing industry. But before the publishing industry, a writer has to look deep within and learn how to become her own best coach, decider, reviser, editor, and agent.

If I could go back in time, here’s what I’d tell myself:

FIRST: Let the manuscript sit in the drawer for at least a few months before embarking on a final revision and submissions. Confession: I put Flashes of War aside for 3 weeks over the course of 3 years—that’s it; but I put Still Come Home in the drawer for 12 months. What do you during your break? Feed your imagination in any way that you can, other than writing.

When you return to the pages, set your pen aside. Do not sit down. Do not turn on a computer. Read your work out loud, slowly, while standing or pacing, from a printed page. Listen to your own imagination rendered into syllables as they meet the air. Go slowly (I can’t say that enough) and understand that this may mean you can only practice this exercise in 20-minute intervals.

Learn from what you hear and feel in your body as you are doing this. Where have you said something you don’t believe? Where is there a gap? What word is exactly right and why is it right? What does that rightness tell you about where your story/plot/chapter goes next…and do you go there, or do you need to revise? Go slowly enough to apply thinking to language and actually ponder or freewrite answers to the questions I am posing here. Or as Verlyn Klinekborg says, “Search for the sentence that says the thing you had no idea you could say, hidden inside the sentence you’re making.”

Then make changes. Then wait. Feed your imagination and spirit yet again.

As you “feed,” it’s best if you can try something very new and/or fun (example: take a rock climbing class, go to a comedy show, explore a new city) to help yourself remember what beginner’s mind feels like. Alternatively, you can spend this “break time” doing something you’re really good at—maybe a pick-up soccer game if you used to play, or dusting off that old guitar for a few songs, or hosting a dinner club or weekend getaway with pals, or drawing. The point is to remember lightness, ease, play, discovery, and connection. If the activity you choose starts to be measured against standards—your own or someone else’s—stop and choose a different activity (or kick that Nosy Nellie outta your head!).

After you’ve fed your creative spirit, return to the manuscript refreshed. Do what you need to do—and trust me, you’ll know. Then submit your work.

For author Katey Schultz, sometimes “writing” looks like “not writing.”

SECOND: Don’t assume your career has to look like anyone else’s. Despite the immaculate and moving books on your shelf—books by Rick Bass, Alexandra Fuller, Trevor Noah, Thom Jones, Claire Davis, Diane Ackerman, Barry Lopez, Gwendolyn Brooks—these writers, too, composed “shitty first drafts.” They, too, dared to dream and, at some point, fell gravely short. But their lives and unique writing processes, from germination to book in hand, are largely invisible to you. The only thing that matters is what’s most helpful to you at the moment, and if that means going mountain biking for the day or making eighteen quarts of butternut squash soup, then that is what it means.

Which is to say, it’s your job as a writer to create your own standards. You define what “success” means and you get to have an evolving definition of success over the course of your lifetime as a writer. I’ll say that again: you decide, you define—and you do this based on your personal publishing and professional goals. You do not do this based on assumptions you make about the standards other writers have set in order to achieve their own accomplishments. In what way could that logic possibly serve you? It can’t.

In hindsight, I’m glad I learned the lessons that I did. But you don’t have to learn them the hard way. Because the truth is, writers need different support at different times. Would line-level revision assist you most right now? Or do you need an accountability group and a book list? Would a post-graduate level mentorship with structure and challenge give you the boost you need? Or are you starved for prompts and inspiration, ready to bring a sense of play back into your writing?

It’s your job to ponder questions like these and experiment with answering them for yourself. Those reflections and decisions are just as important (if not more so) than any daily word count goal or promise to “write every day.” If you’re in this for the long haul, curating your own breaks, sense of play, opportunities for fulfillment, and approaches to revision, submission, and success are all a part of what you do in your career and they’re all equally important. I believe this so firmly, I’ve built my business on it.

Next month we’ll dive into myth-busting “Write What You Know.” Until then, put your manuscript away and feed your imagination. Curious for a bit more guidance? Readers of this article on The Masters Review can email me for a pro-bono 20-minute consult to discuss goals and needs.


KATEY SCHULTZ is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel, both published by Loyola University Maryland. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, Doris Betts Fiction Prize, IndieFab Book of the Year, five Pushcart nominations, a nomination to Best American Short Stories, and writing fellowships in eight states. She lives in Celo, North Carolina, and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network. Learn more at www.kateyschultz.com.

May 11

New Voices: “Rereading Stephen King on the Eve of My MFA” by Steph Grossman

In today’s New Voices, we’re excited to share with you this essay from Steph Grossman, “Rereading Stephen King on the Eve of My MFA.” Steph, an MFA student at Texas State University, reflects on the valuable experience of reading King’s On Writing for the first time, during a period she calls her “writer puberty.”

The night I got On Writing, I didn’t let myself read it. I didn’t even flip through. Instead, I made myself do my chemistry and history homework, and wait. Maybe I waited because I knew it was going to change everything for me.

I remember the moment I began going through writer puberty.

It was one of those humid April days in the suburbs of New York that make your forearm creases sticky. A spring thunderstorm had just begun, and I was on my bed with my legs crossed under me, my back slouched forward, and Stephen King’s On Writing open in my lap. It was a Wednesday, I was almost seventeen, and I was reading in a young, carefree way that I don’t think I’m capable of anymore.

Earlier that week, on Monday, my English teacher had passed out paperback copies of King’s novella collection, Different Seasons, so we could read “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the story that the acclaimed film The Shawshank Redemption is based on. It was one of the few times in high school that I’d been assigned to read something contemporary and commercial. Perhaps it was even one of the few times I’d been assigned to read something by a living author. Apparently being in honors English meant we deserved the fun stuff.

I was excited, of course, for those reasons. And because I already had an on-again off-again life goal to read everything that King had ever written. Family lore had it that one of my aunts had read his entire oeuvre many times over, and I was inspired to uphold this family tradition—though it was something I could only make headway on in the summer, when school was out and far, far away from my consciousness.

At the point that my English teacher handed me Different Seasons, I’d only read Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, Skeleton Crew (“The Mist,” swoon), and It. I had seen both versions of The Shining (the made-for-TV one that King loves, and the Kubrick one that he hates), It (the Tim Curry one), and Stand By Me (the only one). I also had vivid childhood memories of lounging on a king-sized hotel bed with my parents and brother—all of us pooped from a long day at Disney World—watching Pet Sematary through the slots of my fingers. And of watching Dolores Claiborne and eating Oreo O’s cereal one morning while on another family trip. (Clearly my parents were not the censoring type, something I’m forever grateful for.)

That Monday, after being handed Different Seasons, I waited near the front doors of my high school to get a ride home from my first-ever serious boyfriend, whom I’d met through my part-time job at Panera Bread. He was running late, so I decided to page through the book and start at the end, with the afterword.

In a casual, chummy tone—a signature component of King’s writing, but especially his nonfiction—he wrote about the publishing industry’s tortoise-like publication pace, about being warned that writing dark stuff was going to get him typed, and about the difficulty of getting a novella published. He touched on the literary vs. genre debate. He used a footnote. He cursed! A lot.

Somehow, via prose, I felt as if I were being treated like an adult for the first time. King didn’t know me at all, but he used the words “you” and “your,” and so to me, it felt like he’d come to the page with the assumption that I personally was on the inside of things. That I just…got it.

I’d never read anything like it before.

To continue reading “Rereading Stephen King on the Eve of My MFA” click here.

May 8

2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers Shortlist!

The Masters Review is proud to share our shortlist for the 2019-2020 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers shortlist! These 15 stories are now with guest judge Kimberly King Parsons who will decide the three finalists for this year’s award. Congratulations, shortlisters, and a heartfelt THANK YOU to all of our submitters. This year’s competition was fierce!

Accomplice, Claire Russell

Bones, Catherine Malcynsky

Compound Fractures, Alice Hatcher

Departures, Sophie McBain

Her Own Kind, Di Bei

Joe Blake, Raeden Richardson

Lady Centaur, Masha Kisel

Mindswaps, Toby Donovan

Rapture, Chloe Seim

Reaching for a Signal, B. K. Elroy

Sore Vexed, Chad Gusler

The Driver, Samantha Xiao Cody

The Easiest Thing in the World, Taylor Grieshober

The Memorable Fancy, Jennifer Lesh Fleck

Tsunami, Shivani Manghnani

May 6

Interview with the Winner: Zeeva Bukai

Last week, we published the winner of our 2019 Fall Fiction Contest, “Salt-Sea” by Zeeva Bukai, which was selected by Anita Felicelli. Today, we are excited to share with you this excellent interview with the author, in which the author discusses the conception of the story, her various influences, and more.

Classic boring author question: What was the inspiration behind “SaltSea”? How did this idea come to you?

It began with the narrator, Deni. She emerged out of a novel I’m working on, and though I edited her out long before I completed the first draft, she stayed with me. There was something potent about her, a troubled female soldier, and so I decided to write a story set in and around the Dead Sea where the landscape is evocative, unforgiving, and surreal. Because I’d done research for the novel which takes place between the Six Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur in 1973, “Salt-Sea” is grounded in that time frame too. I wanted to explore the relationship between these two young women that had little in common except that they’d been drafted into the army and had a deep need to be loved. Once I started, I realized that I was writing a story about love and longing.

What is this story’s development timeline likeis it a fresh new story, something you’ve been working on or a while, something you finished a long time ago and finally decided to submit, etc?

Like most of my stories, this one had a long gestation period, about six years. I know that sounds outrageous, but It was one of the stories I’d work on when I’d get stuck in the novel. I’d write a few pages, sometimes work on it for a week or two, and then when I’d feel juiced up again, I’d return to the novel. Most of my short stories in the last few years climbed out of that book in one form or another. I “finished” Salt-Sea at least three times, sent it out and then watched it crawl back. That’s how I knew it wasn’t ready yet, and so I’d revise again. Each revision was another excavation, until finally I had the story I wanted—the one that felt right.

Which of the characters do you relate to most? What’s your authorial stance on whether characters do, don’t, can, or can’t relate to an author?

Honestly, I relate to both Deni and Iris, but the narrative drive belongs to Deni. Each of these young women have characteristics that I understand and sympathize with. I might not like them, but I get them. My background began in theater and so I think for me to write truthfully about a character, I have to not only relate to them, but dive into their skin. Whether they’re sympathetic or not, I have to have compassion for them. My goal as a writer is to make each character believable, especially if they’re troubled.

One thing I love about this piece is the main character’s aloofnesswe know there’s this thing between Iris and Deni and yet Deni’s able to let things happen and not happen, let them be, in the story and in the narration. How much of that is situational (from the cultural or occupational realm) and how much is Deni’s character? How do those elements interplay for you, when you’re writing?

That’s a good question. Overall, I think Deni’s aloofness or passivity is part of her personality. She’s shy, awkward, and wary of people, and yet at the same time falls in love with Iris because that young woman pays attention to her. Deni’s an observer that sees things the way she wants them to be, needs them to be. At the same time, she’s a product of her culture. The story takes place in the early 70s in a very different Israel than the one we see today. Even though, women were essential to the development of the state, labored in the fields, were in the armed forces, and held the highest public office, the patriarchy expected them to hang back and know their place.

I also appreciate the way you capture unique voices without dipping too deep into cheesy colloquial language, especially for an international story and especially in using words from another language scattered in. Is this something you focus on or work towards in your writing, or something that comes naturally because of your identity as a writer? Some combination of both?

Dialogue is the hardest thing to write because you want to make sure that you’re capturing the voice of the character, and moving the plot forward. It’s got to flow, otherwise it feels false, stilted. So I work really hard to make sure it sounds as natural as possible, true and organic to the character. I’ll use Hebrew if the word in that language captures the essence of what I’m trying to say. Hebrew is my mother tongue, a primal language. It’s an essential part of my identity, as is English. There’s a tension that exists in this duality and I think it translates to the page, no pun intended.

Who else do you know is writing like you write right now?

I don’t really know, but there are many writers that I admire, people like Ayelet Tzabari, who wrote the memoir “The Art of Leaving,” and the story collection, “The Best Place on Earth,” and poet, and novelist, Hala Alyan, author of “Salt Houses.” Both women live in two cultures, two languages. They write about the Middle East—Israel and Palestine.

When looking for literary influences, do you look for people who have similar tones/topics as you, or stuff that’s totally different? In other words: what sparks you and your writing?

I think I’m most drawn to authors similar in tone and topic. Immigrant stories that deal with identity and displacement, and stories that explore the life of the outsider. It’s a long list, but if I had to narrow it down the writers that have really moved me are Margarite Duras, Nicole Kraus, Anthony Doerr, Jerzy Kosinsky, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Eshkol Nevo, Alexsander Hemon, Barbara Kingslover. Mira Jacob, Zerurya Shalev, Dorit Rabinyan, Tadzio Koelb, Toni Morrison, Julia Phllips, Tiphanie Yanique, A.B. Yehoshua. I’m sure I’ve left many off the list. There are so many wonderful writers.

Is “SaltSea” out of the norm for you, voice-wise or subject-wise? What do you typically write about / what’s your range of interest?

This story is a bit out of the norm for me.  Not so much in voice, but subject matter—though I often write about relationships. Typically, I write about the immigrant experience and the way identity is shaped and the effect that displacement has on families—husbands and wives, mothers and daughters.

Interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw

May 1

May Book Review: I Am Here to Make Friends by Robert Long Foreman

Released today from Sundress Publications, Robert Long Foreman’s collection, I Am Here to Make Friends, depicts a “vibrant, often hilarious world” through stories which “derive much of their energy from a dark comedy and matter-of-fact renderings of the extraordinary,” according to our reviewer, Nicole VanderLinden.

I recently read an interview with Alice McDermott (in the Paris Review’s “Art of Fiction” No. 244) in which she advised writers to “be sure your stories aren’t too much about what they’re about.” I thought of this quote often while reading the nine fabulous stories in Robert Long Foreman’s I Am Here to Make Friends, in which narrators approach their interior stories from an angle, often a bizarre one, and in which their deadpan engagement in a madcap world underscores their own “thwarted longing,” as writer Maureen Stanton has described it, as much as it reveals the underbelly of life’s absurdities.

Read on.

Apr 30

New Voices Revisted: “Some People Belong Inside” by Shannon Peavey

This month we turn the clock back to April 2015, when we first published Shannon Peavey’s brilliantly bizarre “Some People Belong Inside”. This story is set in a surreal prison where inmates are charged with changing their daughters into trees, stealing people’s identities by literally turning into them, and other, nearly unspeakable things. The story’s protagonist draws inspiration from the real-life insatiable eater, Tarrare, the “hungriest man in history.”

They sit in silence for the rest of the meal, watching each other eat. He thinks they’re probably both reliving it, that deep shameful thing that brought them to this place chained like beasts. For Tarrare, it’s the rush of blood in his teeth, the visceral god, that’s good, that really hit the spot—and then later, only later, the knowledge that he had done something unforgivable and needed to hide himself. He’d licked the blood up off the linoleum.

The guard squashes Tarrare’s face to the vent letting air out of the kitchen, all hot metal against his cheek, and food smells and oil smells, and he can’t help it—he drools, actually drools, a little slug of saliva inching over his lip to roll down his chin.

The guard laughs and grinds his sweaty palm into the back of Tarrare’s neck. “Pathological,” he says.

With his hands cuffed short, Tarrare can’t even reach up to wipe his mouth. The spit starts to dry on his face. It’s not that the vent air smells good—it’s prison air, prison food. But he’s just so fucking hungry.

“Better enjoy it now,” the guard says. “You won’t be eating like you used to, in here.” There’s a note of disgust in his voice, and Tarrare thinks about saying that his appetite wasn’t so unnatural, he didn’t eat like that all the time—but he doesn’t. It isn’t really true.

Finally the hand on his neck lets up. Tarrare straightens, but keeps his head bowed. He likes to avoid trouble, when he can.

The guard prods him, and they walk on. This hallway is as long and empty as the one before it, all blank walls and closed doors without numbers or windows or knobs. The guard’s footsteps sound hollow on the concrete, but Tarrare is wearing soft-soled slip-ons and he walks silently.

At the end of the hall, a door slides open, gaping into the black hole of another room. A noise spills from it—a crackle and buzz, a soft sound like industrial lights or a TV set to an empty station.

They step into a little space with a door on either side, about the size of the walk-in closet at his house. His old house. The guard uncuffs him and the other door opens.

To continue reading “Some People Belong Inside” click here.

Apr 29

Litmag Roadmap: New Hampshire

We’re back in the contiguous United States, headed up to New England. Join us on our trip through the Granite State’s extraordinary literary magazines!

Things you might not have known about New Hampshire: it’s a beach state (Portsmouth is the new Boston, ya’ll); it was the first state to have its own constitution; it was one of Robert Frost’s fave hangouts; the first free public library was founded here in 1933; it’s trying to get out of America but Maine is in the way. Great, now we got that out of the way and you can hear what you really want to hear about New Hampshire: where you can get published!

Barnstorm

Sponsored by the University of New Hampshire MFA program, Barnstorm boasts a strong showing of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Recently, they’ve also somehow recruited some top-notch visual artists for extra appeal. No submission fees, friendly editors — this is the chillest Northeastern literary situation you’ll ever experience. Our favorite bit: plenty of quippy, useful editorial advice in their “Storystorm” blog installments.

The Penman Review

This little-known lit mag hails from the Southern New Hampshire University trifecta: both the online undergraduate English/Creative Writing program, the online MA English program, and the online MFA program have tendrils tied up in this pub. Their annual fall fiction contest (cash prizes!) and monthly submission cycles (like rent, they’re due again on the 1st), however, are open to everyone. Note that The Penman Review rolls old school — submit a Word doc through their online form.

Northern New England Review

Based out of the small but mighty Franklin Pierce University (it’s okay we hadn’t heard of it either) and run by each year’s creative writing and editing/publishing class students, NNER seeks work from and about the “cedar forests, cold lakes, and rocky coasts” of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. While submissions have closed for their much-celebrated Volume 40 — dedicated to exploring the possible futures and past mysteries of the local region — stay tuned to their ever-active Twitter feed for future opportunities. Bonus secret social justice mission: NNER makes sure that each publication cycle lands physical copies in the periodical sections of more than 200 correctional facilities in the region.

Lifelines

If you need a place to submit your COVID-19 experience to, look no further than Lifelines, the Dartmouth School of Medicine’s literary magazine. Published annually and open to all, this journal aims to infuse the healthcare community with art and word. Think of it as the step beyond that painting you like at your hospital: its goal of encouraging reflective writing takes the concept of “writing the other” to the provider-patient relationship, giving space to traumatic and banal experiences alike and a voice and place for expression for the often-overworked healthcare community. If an Instagram post thanking your local first responders doesn’t feel like enough, consider writing something that might fit here.

The MacDowell Colony

While not a literary magazine but rather a “leading contemporary arts organization,” we’d be remiss not to mention this 113-year-old pillar of the American writers journey, located in prime isolation and incubation territory in idyllic Peterborough. If not the heartbeat of the literary world then certainly a main artery — a place many a recognized and great writer has come to transform and be transformed — a MacDowell Colony fellowship is a worthy reach of a goal and bucket list writer experience. The next residency deadline is September 15, and hey, you’ve finally got enough time on your hands to put together a formidable application.

by Melissa Hinshaw

Apr 28

May Deadlines: 12 Contests and Deadlines This Month

They say that April showers bring May flowers, and oh boy, has the last month been a deluge! We can only hope that you may have managed to create something beautiful, and that perhaps you might share it with the world through one of these contests. Go forth, and be well!

FEATURED Masters Review Flash Fiction Contest

Never before has each word in a submission been worth so much… You might be limited to 1000 words, but the winner will be rewarded with $3000! Second and third place receive $300 and $200, respectively, and all stories are considered for publication. We’re only looking for previously unpublished stories, but you’re allowed both simultaneous and multiple submissions. Our guest judge is Sherrie Flick, and we’re asking you to dazzle her! Don’t miss it!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 31

The Loraine Williams Poetry Prize

Ilya Kaminsky, the decorated professor from Georgia Tech, is judging this contest for The Georgia Review, and they are looking for a masterful poem! The final winner will receive $1500, publication, and a trip to Atlanta for a public reading, but all submitted poems will be considered for publication (at $4 a line). Learn more here.

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: May 1

Creative Nonfiction Grants

The Whiting Foundation offers a helping hand to authors in the midst of completing a book-length work of nonfiction for a general, not academic, audience by awarding up to eight grants of $40,000. They welcome submissions such as works on history, biography, the sciences, philosophy, travel writing, and even personal essays, but these projects must be under contract to a publisher in the United States. Work must have been ongoing, to ensure that the author can identify upcoming challenges, but any applicants who fulfill all the requirements already know that this is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss out!

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: May 4

Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize

This amazing prize is available through Duke University, and it’s based on the collaboration between photographer Dorothea Lange and writer Paul Taylor. They’re looking for extended and ongoing projects that rely on combining words and images, up to nineteen images and fifteen pages! Applications must include a project description, a statement, and a biography. The winner will receive $10,000, a feature story, and their work will be placed in the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University. More details here.

Entry Fee: $60 Deadline: May 15

Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize

If you have a poem to share, Ruminate wants to read it! Judged by the fantastic Katie Petersen, the first-place prize is $1500 and publication. The runner-up receives $300, and all entries are considered for publication. Each submission is only two poems, but there are no limits on the number of entries per person. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 15

Prophecy Creek Award for Speculative Fiction

If you write your fiction with a futuristic or supernatural bent, this is the contest you’ve been waiting for! Hidden River Press is looking for an original unpublished work of speculative fiction, and the winner will receive $1000 and publication. Make a note that submissions need to include a brief biography, outline, and full synopsis along with the full manuscript! More details here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 15

Raymond Carver Short Story Contest

If your stories are compelling, captivating, and concise, then Carve Magazine has the contest for you! Judged by Pam Houston, the winner receives $2000, second-place receives $500, third-place is given $250, two Editor’s Choice recipients get $125, and all of the winning entries will be read by three literary agents. This is the twentieth anniversary of the contest, so don’t waste any more time! Submit here.

Entry Fee: $17 Deadline: May 15

The Emerging Writer’s Contest

Ploughshares prides itself on their commitment to promoting the work of up-and-coming writers, and that means you! This contest is meant to celebrate emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, awarding $2000, publication, and agency review to the winners of each category. Kirstin Valdez Quade is judging fiction, Esmé Weijun Wang is judging nonfiction, and Ilya Kaminsky is judging poetry. Guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $24 Deadline: May 15

New Letters Prizes

There are actually three contests here, one each for poetry, nonfiction, or fiction! The Conger Beasley Jr. Award for Nonfiction submissions may be up to 8000 words, and the best essay receives $2500 and publication. The Robert Day Award for Fiction may also be up to 8000 words, the Patricia Cleary Miller Award for Poetry up to six poems, and the winner of these contests also receives $2500 and publication. Make sure to select the correct contest for your submission! More details here.

Entry Fee: $24 Deadline: May 18

Elixir Press Fiction Award

This contest is sponsored by Elixir Press, and is open to all authors writing in English! They’re accepting both novels and short story collections, as long as the submissions are literary quality. Simultaneous submissions are welcome, and the winner receives $2000, publication, and 25 copies of their winning manuscript. Submit here.

Entry Fee: $40 Deadline: May 31

Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction

The University of Georgia Press has offered this award since 1983, and it has become an important showcase for talented emerging writers. Series editor Roxane Gay is looking for short story collections, which may include novellas and long stories, and the competition is open to all authors writing in English who reside in North America. The winner receives a cash award of $1000 as well as a standard book publishing contract with the University of Georgia Press. More information here.

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: May 31

Guy Owen Prize

Southern Poetry Review is looking for the perfect poem, and it could be yours! They’re accepting three to five poems in every submission, and the winning poem will receive $1000 and publication. Enter here!

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: May 31

by Kimberly Guerin