The Masters Review Blog

Mar 19

Litmag Roadmap: Wisconsin

We’re on our way back to the midwest, to a special place in my heart as a former Milwaukean and Badger alum: The Dairy State! Join us for a fish fry on this Friday in Wisconsin.

You may think of badgers, cheese hats, or the Green Bay Packers when you think of Wisconsin—but you should think of burgeoning college towns and bustling writer communities at work on the page and in the streets. From art and activism to prose and poetry, Wisconsin writers do it all, and they want you to get involved:

Cream City Review

This sleek magazine hails from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is named for—get ready for this history tidbit—the color of bricks made with clay exclusive to the Milwaukee area. One of the most instagrammable lit mags we’ve seen with an equally mouthwatering feed, they publish poetry, prose, and “submissions that span and coordinate both traditional and digital components” (i.e. interactive! programmatic! multimedial!) for their original I/O section. Submissions close April 1 so get on it! If that window falls too soon for you, follow along to stay abreast of their annual Summer Prize in Fiction

Mobius

Mobius is a lit mag with a mission: “We feel strongly that alternatives are needed to an increasingly corporate literary scene.” If you have a bone to pick with the publishing or media industry, Mobius is the place for you. We aren’t exactly sure what the story is with Madison-based Mobius editor Fred Schepartz, but if his eclectic web design and original protest songs are any indication, we’re positive this publication will approach all submitted work with an open, critical, and imaginative mind. Send fiction submissions directly to his email address at any time.

Stoneboat

An independent literary journal founded in 2010, Stoneboat just recently moved to a completely digital platform, with the first online issue dropping any day now this spring. With a sparkling fresh website and a new crop of editorial talent, the sky’s the limit on what they’ll be able to do in 2021—so stay tuned for updates even though their current submission window just closed.

Wisconsin Review

The oldest literary magazine in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Review is published out of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. It’s a quiet and mysterious publication who’s been offline during the COVID pandemic to work on their submission backlog, but they promise to open submissions again in early 2021—so the clock is ticking! Bookmark and check back soon.

The Madison Review

A student-run journal based out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this lit mag boasts a talented list of editors and contributors, an active online literary resource hub, and an awesome blog (we especially love their “Extended Cut” series, which features work that didn’t quite fit into each issue). Submissions remain open until May 1, so take your time—but not too much. If you get nothing else from reading this blog post please get that The Madison Review does an incredible job seeking, finding, and sharing new, upcoming, small, obscure, online, random, esoteric, and labor-of-love lit mags all over the internet on their Twitter feed. Submit to all these and TMR.

by Melissa Hinshaw

Mar 17

Chapbook Contest: Finalists

Sound the alarm, the winner is in! Steve Almond has made his selection for our very first Chapbook Contest. We want to thank everyone who braved submitting their manuscripts to this contest. It was truly a remarkable experience for all of our readers to be immersed in your words and worlds. The winning chapbook will be published in the fall. Stay tuned!

Winner

Masterplans by Nick Almeida

Finalists

Deep Blue by Jay Allison

Oscillations by Tanya Perkins

Mar 16

March Book Review: Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

For our second review of March, reviewer Dan Mazzacane digs into Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut collection, Milk Blood Heat, out last month from Grove Press. “Milk Blood Heat aches,” Mazzacane writes. Read on.

“Real gods require blood.” Dantiel W. Moniz’s Milk Blood Heat opens with this haunting epigraph from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Moniz’s stories require just that. Blood. Life. The people and the world she creates on the page are alive, beating and thriving and demanding to be met on their own terms. Two young girls play at all the ways they can die, just as they are coming into their own bodies. Zey devours every word offered to her, creating a world from their many syllables as she self-destructs. A man vacillates between rage and pain as he mourns his dying wife. In all of these stories: mortality. The beauty and fragility of life set against characters equally delicate.

Read more.

Mar 15

New Voices: “Burning” by Adeline Lovell

Make way for the winner! Today we so excited to share “Burning” by Adeline Lovell, the winner of our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Kali Fajardo-Anstine.”This story had me from the first sentence—the promise of dramatic potential, the ultimate question, the end of the world. I was moved to tears by Henry and Leo, and I gasped with delight in these richly cinematic scenes (what euphoria in a Target). ‘Burning’ is a particular kind of American story, a road trip tale announcing itself with a reference to The Road on the first page. I love watching these characters form a close bond out of the most difficult circumstances. ‘Do you think it will hurt?’ Henry whispers, and Leo tightening his hand says, ‘No, it’ll be quick.’ I was with these characters in that moment, feeling their emotions, the deep sadness between them but also such beauty and hope.  Simply lovely. I will think about this story for a long time to come.” – Kali Fajardo-Anstine

In front of them, thick gray clouds fog the sky like a shield against the sun. The sun breaks through the horizon in a white band, bright light, the pale color of disease. In the flat, grim glare, Henry notices, Leo’s eyelashes cast sloping shadows down his cheeks. The trees, silhouetted against the light, already look blackened and burnt.

They announce the end of the world on a Saturday in April through a news article that quotes a whistleblower from the White House. In eight days, a solar flare is going to detach itself from the sun and hurtle towards the earth and burn it to particles. They’ve known for a week, and they weren’t going to say anything.

Henry reads the story in his bedroom as the sun is going down, its dying gasps throwing creamy light over everything: psychology books for exams he will never take, empty coffee cups that are piling up because he hasn’t had the chance to recycle them, a copy of The Road that he borrowed from a friend and never started, a calendar full of appointments that will never happen. He tries to react but feels nothing but hollow. He scans the page again and almost laughs.

Someone at CNN typed out the words “approximately 197 hours until the solar flare makes contact,” with the same formality with which one might report a political scandal. His limbs are heavy, as though someone has cut him open, poured in cement, and sewn him shut again.

He is still reading the two-paragraph article—according to the whistleblower, experts were consulted experts by world leaders on ways to prevent it… say nothing can be done… his phone buzzes beside him on the desk. He blinks and answers his mother.

“Baby,” she whispers.

“Hey,” Henry says, and finds his throat is very dry.

“I don’t even know what to say,” she says. “Oh, Henry. Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.”

His laptop is still open, and texts from his friends are popping up in the corner so fast he can’t even read the names, a blur of black and green. He closes his eyes.

“Come home, Hen,” she says. “Please, babe, your dad and I want you home.”

“Yeah,” Henry says vaguely. “Yeah, of course.”

To continue reading “Burning” click here.

Mar 15

Interview with the Winner: Adeline Lovell

We are thrilled to publish this interview with Adeline Lovell, author of the winning “Burning”, alongside her prize-winning story today! Read “Burning” first, and then sit down with assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw and Lovell as they talk about the story.

Burning question (pun intended): how was writing this story connected to the stress of 2020, if at all?

I actually started this story last February, not fully understanding the semi-apocalyptic world we were about to be entering. When I got sent home from college, I had written about half of it; I wasn’t trying to reflect the—to use my new least favorite word—unprecedented-ness of what was happening, but by last March, it was hard to avoid. The scene where Henry and Leo are walking around Target was inspired by a stop my dad and I made on my way home from college in a Walmart; I remember there being an air of panic, a sense of everyone moving around, not quite sure how scared they needed to be, certainly not knowing how drastically everyone’s lives would change, and I thought about what it would be like to know exactly how much devastation there would be, and how fast we would all give up working or paying or filling our carts only with what we needed. It was definitely cathartic to write this last spring; it wasn’t quite schadenfreude, but I definitely had this sense of, okay, everything is very unstable and I am very scared, and I’m going to channel that into creating a world where things are even more unstable and scary.

I love how real this piece was in terms of young relationships—the chatter between Leo and Henry really grounds this piece in the more fantastical (albeit super plausible) apocalyptic plot. How did you manage to strike that note between lighthearted and charming against this very serious looming threat?

I think there is a tendency of people my age (and Leo and Henry’s age) to trivialize enormous events, and sometimes the scarier, the better the potential for shocking and appalling memes. I imagine if we were to face something like this for real, you’d see teenagers and college students coping with jokes about how they don’t have to study for exams or worry about job interviews. Henry and Leo are kind of engaging with that, and also, this sense of disbelief and almost invincibility; the knowledge that “this is happening but you know, it’s not really gonna happen, right?” that can sometimes come over people during tragedies, especially young and healthy people. There’s also the feeling that acknowledging their own fear will make it real, and the terror and vulnerability in the moments when they do discuss it—Leo talking about the animals, Henry asking if it will hurt—is them looking at one another and begging each other, if you can’t stop this, then just please just don’t let me sit alone with this fear and grief.

How did you come up with Leo and Henry? Did one come first and then the other, or their relationship at once?

The first image I had for this story was two people, with the knowledge of an impending apocalypse, bracing for it together despite the fact that they might not be the closest people in each other’s lives. Originally, the apocalypse premise was the same, but the two main characters were a divorced couple with a toddler, tucking her in and opening some wine they’d been saving for something important and just being together, all of the bitterness between them gone. But I was bored with them and decided it would be more interesting to write two people beginning a relationship as the world ends, rather than reflecting on one that has already ended, and then Henry and Leo came to me, without any of the specifics, but two young gay—not for any particular reason, I just very rarely write about straight relationships—college students falling in love in the worst circumstances imaginable. Once I had them in my head, I never considered anyone else.

This story falls right on the line between literary and YA fiction. Tell us about your experience working in and/or between these genres.

This question actually made me consider my other pieces of writing, and whether I consider what I write to fall into any of those categories more often. I actually think in some ways, this is one of the lighter things I’ve written, certainly in terms of the interpersonal dynamics; this is one of the first stories I’ve written where the friction comes almost entirely from outside forces, rather than resentment and hate and selfishness and miscommunication between two people, or a group of people. I’m twenty, and I think it’s obvious in my writing that I am still working the coming-of-age out of my system, in some stories a lot more blatantly than others, and I think that naturally, those stories do tend to fall on the line between those genres.

I appreciate the immediate cameo of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that is both ironic/funny and helps ground us in the situation. How do you view writing end-of-the-world stories in your own work? Is this a one-off for you, or a topic you write to regularly?

This is the first apocalypse story I’ve ever written; generally, I don’t really have the patience for the world building required in good end-of-the-world stories, even though I do have a love for reading apocalypse stories (The Road, of course, but some of my other favorites: Station Eleven, The Maddaddam trilogy, The Handmaid’s Tale, “There Will Come Soft Rains”, “Speech Sounds”). The stories I write tend to be very grounded in reality and usually against the backdrop of grimly unremarkable locations and events, and I had a lot of fun with the inherent drama of the end of the world.

“Burning” also starts with the concept of betrayal and withholding information, specifically by the country to its people. How is that theme connected to and/or redeemed by Leo and Henry’s relationship?

To be very honest, I had not considered that parallel very seriously until I read this question, but you’re totally right. Henry and Leo, Henry in particular, have to reckon with what is owed to their families, who are terrified and waiting for them. I think the main conflict in the story lies there, in some ways; it is devastating for them to leave one another, but the anguish their families would face if they knew they were delaying their arrival home for the last few days of their lives is hard to swallow. I think both the unnamed government and Henry lying to his mom feel a sort of mercy in what they’re doing, but there’s also a cruelty there, and for Henry, he’s even hurting himself, too. The same way a heads up for humanity would have given people time to plan and say goodbye and get home, Henry saying ‘I need to say goodbye to someone important to me’ would probably have given him some alleviation of the guilt of lying, and of feeling drawn to Leo at this moment that he feels like he should just be getting home.

I also like that this story is a road trip story. Way to intersect so many tropes (apocalypse, romance, journey) at once to make them all unique! Did your idea for this story initially include that element, or was the road trip a vehicle (sorry, another pun) for building this relationship between Leo and Henry?

The road trip came to me when I decided to write about two people who didn’t really know each other rather than two people who come together to say goodbye. I wanted Henry and Leo to have the thrill of this new attraction followed immediately by the realization that they cannot pursue this without betraying people who have been close to them and love them and have expectations for them, but the only circumstance that would put two almost-strangers together would be absolute necessity, and a road trip seemed like a good way to force this relationship that otherwise couldn’t have been considered. They have to reckon with the ultimate romantic freedom—a car, an empty road that they can follow anywhere—but no real way to take advantage of that without hurting people who they owe their time and presence to.

This piece is able to focus on the main characters and action without getting hung up on or distracted by the details of the oncoming apocalypse. Tell us about how you managed to accomplish that through the writing.

Honestly, I was just so much more interested in the dynamics between two people who have been given this unimaginable piece of information, much more than I was in exploring the science of solar flares or writing the classic apocalypse scenes of people smashing windows and trying to flee cities. I wrote this piece first for a creative writing class in college, and one of the notes that I got from my professor was that I should write a bit more about what was happening in the world around Henry and Leo, so I added some details about plane ticket prices and people who believe that it’s all a lie (Shoutout to Courtney! Thank you for all your incredibly helpful advice on this story and others!).

Also, though, when I did consider writing more details of the apocalypse, I kept coming back to really grim images of anarchy and tanks rolling through cities and arson, and I just wasn’t interested in writing a story about the inherent violence and failure of humankind. Obviously, there is cynicism everywhere, much of it earned. But I really do believe that even in the absolute darkest scenarios, most of us just want to receive and offer tenderness, and I wanted this to be a story about that.

Part of this story’s magic hinges on the question of whether or not Leo and Henry ever see each other again—do you think they do? What do you want for them, versus how does it all actually play out after the story you’ve created ends?

The less nuanced, very-attached-to-this-story part of me sometimes says it was all a false alarm and after breathing a sigh of relief, they get to finish college and date and graduate and get an apartment and argue about bringing meat into their home, the same way I watch Titanic but turn it off before the ship sinks or read A Little Life and pretend it ends at The Happy Years, but, since I love a good tragedy, that’s not really what happens. I think that yeah, they do see each other, and it is not what either of them wanted: a meetup in an empty parking lot halfway between their houses, both pretending that they’re going to see old friends because explaining to their families that they’re spending precious time with a new boyfriend wouldn’t go over well. It’s probably just under an hour, and without quite enough privacy, but it’s better than nothing. I think they’re both an age that endings seem impossible, even something as unambiguously final as this, so they made plans for a week later, and it’s a little sardonic, but there’s some real hope and desperation in it, too, the same mixture of carelessness and vulnerability that their relationship began on.

And last but not least: what songs would you put on a playlist to accompany “Burning”? Hopefully we’ll at least see Bruce Springsteen on there—what else?

 I love this question. Yes, I’m on Fire—I briefly considered titling this story after that, but it didn’t quite work. Some other songs that I like a lot for this story: I Know The End by Phoebe Bridgers,

Pink in the Night by Mitski, No Plan by Hozier, This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody) by Talking Heads, If We Were Vampires by Jason Isbell, Break The News by The Who.

interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw

Mar 12

Interview with the Winner: Nancy Ludmerer

On Monday, we had the fortune of publishing Nancy Ludmerer’s magnificent “Matchbox”, the second place finalist for our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Kali Fajardo-Anstine. Today, we’re equally fortunate to share this great interview assistant editor Melissa Hinshaw conducted with the author. Dig in below:

Inquiring minds must know: How did you manage to make a 22-page second person story so engaging?!

It can be hard to pinpoint what makes a story engaging (whether my own or someone else’s). Several years before I began working on “Matchbox,” my son (then 26) commented that I cared about my characters the way I care about people. It’s one of the nicest compliments I’ve received about my writing—and perhaps explains the appeal of this story. For me, “Matchbox” is about character and identity. Candace, the narrator, is still trying to separate herself from her twin. I’ve used second person before but this story, more than any other, demanded it.

What inspired “Matchbox”? What sorts of ideas or images were you pulling out of other works—fiction, real life, movies even—when you sat down to write this piece?

I practiced law for over 30 years. As part of my pro bono work, I interviewed prisoners throughout New York State correctional facilities, so it was a milieu I was somewhat familiar with; like Candace, my narrator, I viewed it as an outsider. Later I worked with a New York State justice task force seeking to eliminate wrongful convictions; DNA evidence was critical. Those experiences informed “Matchbox.” The immediate catalyst was a March 1, 2019 article in the New York Times about how DNA could be used to identify and therefore exonerate—or convict—an identical twin. Like the article Lottie shows Candace in “Matchbox,” the Times story reported that judges were skeptical because this DNA research had not been sufficiently replicated. Another source was the classic (or comic) twin narrative. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved the mayhem that look-alikes can foment—whether in books like The Prince and the Pauper, movies like The Parent Trap, or verse like Henry Leigh’s The Twins, which I was so happy to excerpt in “Matchbox.”

The theme of matches, flames, and this sort of almost-explosiveness starts in the very beginning with the title and carries all the way through. How did you “tend the flame” so to speak as you were writing “Matchbox”? Is that a theme that you started with, or that you added on later on in writing?

Once I decided that Lottie’s crime would be arson, I had to explore why. It’s a crime that’s often viewed as psychological in origin, particularly among young people, and because it is so serious, can lead to lengthy imprisonment. The scene in which Lottie’s lawyer wants Candace to go before the jury and speak about her own fascination with fire was also key. What you identify as the “almost-explosiveness” in many scenes and in the sisters’ relationship followed naturally from these elements. The title came last. My working title was “Heredity.” Once I settled on “Matchbox” it seemed exactly right.

Do you have a sister? How did you tap into the deep well of sister conflict for “Matchbox”?

I don’t have a sister. I do have two older brothers, and remember how surprised I was when a few years ago one brother described the other as the person who was most like him in the entire world. From my sisterly perspective, I always thought they could not be more different! I think “Matchbox” might have been harder to write if I did have a sister. My longing for a sister and imagining what that might be like all went into this story. Your question also drew me back to my high school yearbook, where twin sisters Doria and Sharon (non-identical) both inscribed loving wishes. Sharon concluded hers: “Always remember the other half.” I’ve never forgotten it.

I couldn’t help but notice an echo between the image of ashes at the end and the behind-the-scenes presence of the narrator’s dead mother. In some ways this is a grief story. Tell us a little bit more about that.

The sisters’ experience of their somewhat wayward mother binds them, as does the love they all shared. Her death is both freeing and scary for them. Candace resists the role of Lottie’s caretaker; Lottie is propelled into violence. To some extent, their future relationship will depend on how they both deal with this loss going forward.

I believe you live in New York, and this story is set in New York. Tell us about how place informs or interacts with your writing.

My apartment in Manhattan is two blocks from the corner where for years a bus (bigger than the one in “Matchbox”) used to pick up and take family members to upstate prisons on the weekend. Kids and adults would wait patiently for the bus in all kinds of weather. There’s a terrific article and photo essay about this at here. To feel confident moving characters in a fictional world, I often do research—as I did, for example, for a story currently making the rounds, set in 19th century Poland. In “Matchbox,” most of the setting is based on personal experience.

You’ve published with us before—your story “Summer, 2002”—and are evidently continuing the trend of winning contests and acclaim elsewhere. How do you make your work stand out again and again?

I never attended an MFA program but nonetheless have been privileged to study and work with amazing writers. I began sending out “Summer, 2002” in 2003; thirteen years later, after multiple rejections and revisions, Masters Review took it. My belief in that story was sustained through the years by my wonderful writing teacher (at Kenyon Review summer workshops) Nancy Zafris, who believed in the story from the get-go, and has continued to be a mentor and friend.

As for “Matchbox” it began as an eight-page opening and fragment, which I showed to the brilliant Karen Bender, who’s been working with me one-on-one as a writing coach since September 2019. She loved the premise and the setting and kept asking the critical questions that helped me move the story forward. Her input was invaluable.

I’m grateful for the discipline that practicing law required and instilled in me for decades. Judges don’t move deadlines because a lawyer doesn’t get inspired. I’m also grateful to ongoing (pre-COVID) workshops at my local YMCA (hosted by Beth Bauman) which provided weekly prompts and to my husband Malcolm Spector who remains my first and most loyal reader.

My parents taught me by example that gratitude is the greatest virtue. Thank you for asking these questions and for loving “Matchbox.”

interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw

Mar 11

Craft Chat: Second Person

Our editors return to our conversation on perspective with some thoughts on a point of view we’d like to see more of: second person. We were lucky to publish Nancy Ludmerer’s “Matchbox” on Monday, a fantastic example of the power in this perspective.

Cole Meyer: We’ve published very little in second person at The Masters Review, but it’s not because we’re opposed to it. In the past couple of years, besides “Matchbox” there are two stories (both contest finalists) that jump out to me as strong examples of second person: “Ghost Story” by Becca Anderson and “How to Spot a Whale” by Jacqui Reiko Teruya. I’d love to see more second person come through our queue, but it seems to be such a tricky perspective to get right. Often when we’re making final determinations on a story that’s in second person, I find that we’re hesitating over whether the perspective is actually working for the story. Why do you think that might be?

Brandon Williams: I’m a big believer that second person has some really particular uses, and it’s absolutely great for those, but often the question is whether we’re gaining anything from halfway hiding an I perspective that’s not really hidden (I realize there are other versions of second, but this is the one we see most often). Unlike other POVs, then, it kinda needs an argument, a framework of logic in the story, for its use—why aren’t we in first, which it shares a lot of cool benefits with, and why aren’t we in third if we’re stepping away from interiority?

Melissa Hinshaw: As a possible example to Brandon’s point, I think a lot of second person stories we DO see are relationship-y or family ones, where the second person is used, and the I is dressed this way as an unsaid commentary on the relationship at hand: this obvious and unflagging focus on some other person saying something very much about the relationship. So these stories all kind of end up being about the same thing, or at least carrying the same tones of desire, longing, pain, disconnect, etc. The reason we aren’t in first or third person in these stories is because of the nature of the relationship the story’s about.

Because we see so much of this, I am very interested in second-person stories that do something besides that (a unique and specific argument/framework like Brandon is talking about). I also remember some second person stories that have more of a “choose your own adventure” vibe to them, where the relationship is between the narrator and the reader—why is Lorrie Moore coming to mind here?

BW: I’m a huge fan of more experimental 2nd persons like that! So often we get stuck on the hidden-I 2nd, but there are so many other things to be done with it; the choose-your-own-adventure, the instruction manual (I wish I could think of a better example so I didn’t have to reference this dude anymore, but my go-to here is “How to Date a…” by Junot Diaz), the epistolary of course.

The weird sorta-conversational that’s got an I but You are the main character: “Orientation” by Daniel Orozco.

CM: think you’re making a great point, Melissa— it’s not so much the perspective in those cases, it’s that we’ve seen this story before, and too often.

And I’m a huge fan of “Orientation”! I remember writing a story in undergrad that I only realized after the fact was basically a rip off of that story. One of my few experimentations with second person. I think I was too embarrassed once I realized that to go back to that perspective.

BW: Guilty of exactly the same.

MH: Great now I need to do it too! You guys have inspired my week’s work Also I have verified Lorrie Moore: 6 of the 9 stories in her collection Self Help are in second person.

CM: Another example that comes to mind is “How to Leave Hialeah” — I’m not sure if I’m able to find an accessible version of this story online, but it is on JSTOR for those who have access.

BW: Ooh, that looks really interesting.

CM: So I guess it may be helpful for us to consider how these second persons are working most effectively. What would they lose in first person or third person? Would they lose anything? Because I often find that that’s the advice I’d want to give a lot of the writers I’m seeing experiment with second person: Try this story again in first or third.

BW: And that’s the thing, right? Second person doesn’t really have a clear camera advantage, so it has to have an advantage on some other storytelling leverage in order to use it. And unless you’re building new ground with it, we see a lot of stories doing the same thing with it (those family/relationship outsider stories Melissa mentioned).

MH: Second person stories we see a lot seem to lean heavily into this …. very FEELY space, like swirling with emotion, like that’s what the second person seems to be used for largely. That might be what authors fear losing in first or third. Maybe it’s good to do a draft in second, find emotion, and then consider how to allot it in first or third person— which might in part be a pacing issue, like from our last chat, knowing when to slow down and feel scenes out versus speed them up and drive excitement. Titrating emotion. Emotional regulation. Something like that.

It’s this “swept up in the you” sense, this totally enraptured thing you get in second person. So it might be good for authors who find themselves doing that to think about how that would translate into first or third if the POV of the story wasn’t doing all the work of it.

BW: And that feelingness, of course, can easily get in the way of (or hide) characterization or plot. We talk about this all the time with stories that feel voicey but empty, and the floatiness of 2nd person can definitely exacerbate that.

CM: Are there any examples of, like, really long second person stories? Any novels? I can’t think of anything off hand. Because I do think there’s a really strong sense of intimacy in second person that can be hard to balance for so long. And that may be why (in my estimation, at least) second person seems to be most successful in small packages. Flash fiction, shortish stories.

I’m sure I’m about to be proven very wrong, and there’s an obvious and famous example of this, but I just can’t think of one.

MH: I had to Google this and If an a Winter’s Night a Traveler came up (Italo Calvino)— that felt like a “Oh right duh” to me, but that book is kind of all over the place for reasons beyond second person too. But other than that I can’t think of much…

CM: Ha, it almost seems unfair to pull out Calvino, but good point!

BW: There are more first plural novels than second person.

Do you guys know Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman? It’s not in 2nd, but it does have multiple chapters that use something like 2nd instructive.

MH: I haven’t heard of that! I am familiar with authors using second person in some chapters, especially when they are writing from multiple characters and switching between them each chapter.

CM: I know There There has some chapters in second person, too. In any case, I do hope we see some more attempts at second person! I love experimenting with voice and perspective, and I’m always encouraged to see others trying their hand at it as well.

 

Mar 9

Interview with the Winner: Clare Howdle

Clare Howdle’s “Petrified” earned the Honorable Mention for our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New writers. Assistant Editor Melissa Hinshaw had the opportunity to talk with Clare about the story and her writing. Read on:

It’s a boring question, but I have to know with “Petrified”—where on earth did you get the idea for this story?

It’s not boring at all! There are a few different seeds that came together to make the story, the first being a very literal one. There really is a tree trunk in the Natural History Museum in London that has been petrified and when I worked in London I would often go to the Museum. The idea of a living thing turning to stone stayed with me – it felt like there was a story in there somewhere. The rest of the story took shape when my partner and I were talking about the challenges of growing up as a young man right now, the pressures to be a certain way, the comfort you can feel if you find your people, and the ease with which you can be convinced to believe or see things a certain way. We also talked at one point about walking through walls. In fact, he would say that the story is 100% his idea because of this!

Is this sort of story—magical realism, maybe we’ll call it—the sort of thing you usually write, or is “Petrified” an anomaly for your typical style and tone? In other words: are there others like this? If it is unique to your personal canon, tell us more about that, too.

I don’t think of my writing as magical realism, but I have always been drawn to stories that blend the every day world with something odd, off kilter or magical in some way. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Louis Borges, Helen Oyeyemi, Daisy Johnson and Akwaeke Emezi are all writers I love so that has certainly influenced the style and subject of what I write. I find it an interesting and exciting way of exploring what makes us humans. For example stories that I’ve written like “Petrified” have a fantastical element as an overarching metaphor, others play a bit more with time, format or structure, and some introduce fictional characters from other authors’ work (a bit of a liberty) to see how my protagonist behaves when faced with them in their own ‘reality’. I guess it would be fair to say that all of my stories have something a bit out of the ordinary about them.

I love the narration in this piece, the way it manages to be both third person omniscient and second person plural, weaving between those. It helps that the walls are everywhere—very clever, and lends a sinister feeling throughout. How did you balance this sort of monstrous and surreal feeling with very real and normal family characters?

It was the trickiest part! I enjoy stories that play with point of view well and wanted to see if I could challenge myself with something more unusual, but at the same time I knew it needed to be done for a reason. The walls’ prevalence, in every space, made that possible; that they could observe, comment and begin to feel with him. I really wanted the shadow of the walls to be felt throughout and the connection they have with Daniel to intensify as they ‘get to know’ more of him. It was important that as the narrator the walls were able to speak for Daniel, increasingly, as the story built to convey the sense of immersion he feels as he loses himself to them. I thought of the walls very much as a character in the story and interrogated at every point to make sure what they knew, what they could share, rang true with their character and their access to what has happening for Daniel. I definitely find point of view to be a huge part of my writing style and something I spend a lot of time on/have rather an unhealthy obsession with. For example in the novel I’m working on at the moment there’s first person and third person (from the main protagonist, marking different times of her life and how connected she feels to her own story) interspersed with second person (from a character telling midnight stories to the protagonist and addressing her directly). The tough bit is doing it in a way that retains the flow of the story and keeps the reader immersed and wanting more. I’m working on that!

Bonus question: what song(s) would you pair with “Petrified”? 

Gosh, so hard. I listen to a lot of music as I write, but I can’t listen to songs with lyrics as I find it too distracting. Jóhann Jóhannsson (particularly Fordlandia) and Stars of the Lid are constant go-tos for me, or if I’m trying to think of new ideas or want inspiration I love Bill Withers, or Nina Simone or Bowie—such storytellers.

In terms of pairing suggestions with “Petrified”, I found music that was unsettling and sorrowful really valuable when working on “Petrified” and that feels right for Daniel in many senses, but perhaps also something that chimes with the idea of being a teenage boy struggling with your sense of self and who you’re supposed to be (side note, the story isn’t set in a particular era, but because my experience of teenage angst was in the ‘90s that’s where my recommendations have come from!). Something angsty and a bit thrashy perhaps. And then maybe the song I imagined Daniel’s mother putting on in the car—almost getting it right, but still somehow so wrong, which makes it way worse for him. This is the only time music is mentioned in the story so it felt right to try and represent it. It happens when they’re waiting outside the school gates with Daniel simultaneously not wanting to be in the car, but not wanting to leave it. Here are my suggestions—listen at your peril!

 

Mar 8

New Voices: “Matchbox” by Nancy Ludmerer

Kali Fajardo-Anstine chose Nancy Ludmerer’s “Matchbox” as the second place finalist for our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers! Today, we’re proud to share this marvelous story with you, along with Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s introduction: “I was first pulled into ‘Matchbox’ by the strength of the writer’s voice.  The prose is conversational and natural yet filled with striking moments of wisdom, an attention to language that amplifies and reflects human nature. Through stark realism ‘Matchbox’ presents a story rife with thematic questions, the weight of our crimes, nature versus nurture, betrayal, and love. Vast ideas populate this story but do not weigh down this swiftly moving narrative of two sisters, identical twins, Candace and Lottie. I was intrigued by their characterization and found myself both charmed and saddened by their actions, which speaks to the power of this story. Candace and Lottie’s story might probe questions of the highest order, but they are also deeply complex and individualistic characters, women who are rounded, complex, flawed, and capable of change.”

Long before Lottie shows you the Times article, you found the studies showing that identical twin embryos, from the same fertilized egg, start to be different a month after conception. During the first trimester they undergo an average of 300 genetic mutations. Also called copy errors. You love and hate that name: copy errors. One of your tasks at work is to make sure there are no copy errors when an evidence book is prepared for a judge or arbitrator. But copy errors in identical twins are inevitable. They’re what make you different from Lottie.

The van is late. No surprise there. You’re first in line at 58th and Tenth, huddled in your wool coat, tongue scorched from drinking your newsstand tea too fast. Already dreading the end of the ride, seventy-five miles away: the sky brighter than anywhere in the city; noisy birds atop the barbed wire, mocking prisoners and visitors alike; stone-faced guards who take family members one at a time through four different doors that slam shut (metal, gated, electrified, red). Waiting, and then more waiting. Like it’s you who’s the fuck-up and not Lottie. The security area, the metal detectors, the humiliating search for contraband. Even the children—and half of the visitors on Sundays are kids, T-shirts or ruffly blouses tucked in their jeans, hair slicked back or neatly braided—even they have to go through the metal detectors.

The van’s a converted school bus, yellow and grimy on the outside, overheated within. Frayed seats, woolly asbestos-laden guts exposed. Everyone all uber-polite until the boarding’s almost finished, the little ones settled in with their juice and coloring books, the older kids sulking at having to leave their phones behind or have them confiscated by security. That’s when some folks think maybe there won’t be room and the shoving starts. Fact is, they all get on. Some little ones sitting on dad’s lap, or grandma’s.

Being first, you get a window seat, last row. You stare at the dirty snow, the still-deserted Main Streets. The icy gray river churning in the distance. In spring or after a fresh snowfall, it’s a pretty ride if you forget where you’re going, turn off the voices spilling their guts or carousing like New Years. Today, the woman beside you, hair in a net, mouth lipsticked dark brown like her eyes, wants to talk. “Your sister?” she asks, having pegged you as too young to be a prisoner’s mom and too old (although at thirty-two, you aren’t really) to be a prisoner’s daughter. Foolishly you nod.

“My sister, too,” she says. “Mine, they keep putting in SHU. I think she should sue. Pardon my asking but with your suit and all, are you a lawyer?”

You tell her no. You don’t say that you work for lawyers, which would only prompt more questions. Instead you look out the window intently, as if the key to existence is hidden in the closed-up storefronts. Finally she dozes off.

After ninety minutes getting through security, you actually enter the visiting room. It looks like a cafeteria in a semi-rundown middle school, with three vending machines along one wall. The offerings are the same in each machine, which always disappoints visitors: Poland Spring, Coke, Sprite, Snickers, Kit Kats, Doritos. You murmur your twin sister’s name and cell number to the first guard you see.

You haven’t visited for months. On the phone Lottie said she had a plan for getting out soon. Is this Lottie’s way of drawing you in? Despite being born two minutes earlier, you were always trailing dreamily behind. Until school brought you to heel. You had to pay attention, stay alert, to keep people from mixing you up with Lottie.

To continue reading “Matchbox” click here.

Mar 6

Litmag Roadmap: Southern California

It’s not a far drive, so let’s head on down to Southern California. A couple weeks ago we rounded up some great literary magazines in the northern part of the state. Now, let’s dig into who’s publishing what in the south:

The Golden State of the West Coast, California, is the most populated state of the country. This is probably why the state is divided into two regions: Northern and Southern California. There are differences in weather, topology, and much more. SoCal is home of Los Angeles, sunny weather, and beautiful beaches. You’re probably likely to run into someone famous! These literary magazines, both older and newer journals, certainly deserve celebrity status:

pioneertown

This online literary journal gets its name from an old Western movie town. While they accept the usual genres (poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction), they also promote hybrid forms. They want new and exciting work, and experimentation is welcome! The rolling submission period allows for work that “ignites and excites” those over at pioneertown. While there’s a submission fee (that helps pay writers and can be waived if there are issues), they hope that the smaller, close-knit feel will attract writers daring to be inventive.

Santa Ana River Review

Established in 2015, Santa Ana River Review is a biannual journal. Their home base is the University of California, Riverside where graduate students of the Creative Writing program run the publication. Submissions are currently closed, as their most recent issue Summer/Fall 2020 dropped in late December. When the reading period reopens, they accept art, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and drama, a genre not seen as often (yet, since SoCal is home to dreamers wanting to work in film, this addition makes sense).

The Los Angeles Review

Known as the “voice of Los Angeles,” The Los Angeles Review is a print and online journal that began in 2003. General submissions of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, book reviews, and translation are accepted online year-round for only a small fee. Both published and emerging writers can submit to the journal. The Los Angeles Review’s mission is the hope that something in their journal will speak to everyone.

7×7

7×7 began in 2015 to encourage a new kind of collaboration. The journal pairs one writer and one visual artist to create a story that allows imagination to flourish. Think of this journal as a variation of the game exquisite corpse. Once the writer or artist is chosen to start the game, they have two weeks to create their original piece. The collaboration period should be a fun, “yes and” type conversation. To submit, or play, there’s an online submission form to fill out.

Westwind

Everyone has probably heard of University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), but only writers and artists have probably heard of their literary magazine, Westwind. The journal has been publishing poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, and more for over fifty years from creators at UCLA and beyond. Westwind encourages submissions that challenges tradition and plays with form. The submission period for the Winter 2021 journal is open until March 12, so make sure to send your submissions emails before then! If you miss this deadline, they publish (online and print-on-demand) every Fall, Winter, and Spring.

Faultline

Founded in 1992 at UC Irvine, Faultline publishes emerging and established writers who live in our country and abroad. Every spring, the new issue features poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, translations, and art. Although the submission period is closed, keep an eye out around October of 2021 for the new reading period. In the meantime, they encourage prospective submitters to check out their archives.

Exposition Review

When the Southern California Review stopped publishing, the University of Southern California created Exposition Review. This multi-genre journal accepts fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, experimental, visual art, and comics. In addition to the vast majority of genres, they host contests and other events to allow artists and writers to let their voices shine. The submission period for the yearly issue and the Flash 405 contest are currently closed, but they will reopen in September.

Lunch Ticket

Lunch Ticket’s mission is to provide a platform for marginalized, underrepresented, and diverse voices. The Antioch University-based journal looks for work with themes of social, environmental, and economic justice. All submissions require no identifying information, meaning anything for their biannual issues have a blind reading. The journal accepts fiction, nonfiction, flash proses, young adult literature, art, and translation. Although the submission period for the June 2021 issue is closed, Amuse Bouche, a weekly contest, is accepting submissions throughout February.

by Rebecca Williamson

Mar 5

Interview With the Winner: Dayna Cobarrubias

On Monday, we published the 3rd place finalist in our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers, which was selected by Kali Anstine-Fajardo. You can read Dayna Cobarrubias’s wonderful “Como La Flor” here, and then read her interview with Melissa Hinshaw below:

My favorite part about “Como La Flor” is definitely the characters. How did you come up with them, or how did they come to you?

The characters were inspired by own experience. Much of my work is a form of individual processing, a way to unpack and heal the scars of assimilation. With “Como La Flor” I wanted to confront my own shadows as a woman with both privileged and marginalized identities, and explore how people of color can still play a role in replicating the same systems they are working to dismantle.

You work at a non-profit—how does that inform the way you write, or what you write about?

My motivation for my work in the nonprofit sector and writing share a common theme; to work for racial equity, justice, and liberation. In my writing, however, I examine how the systemic issues I tackle in my work impact individuals on a personal and interpersonal level. In this story in particular, I wanted to highlight some of the hypocrisies inherent in Mari’s character and used her role as a non-profit executive to do this. There is this concept of the nonprofit industrial complex which criticizes the sector for obstructing social change. Mari, for example, is a non-profit leader who believes she is “woke” but still holds a paternalistic view on the ways in which she is “helping” others who are less privileged than her.

This story’s great strength is the way it integrates so many important themes. Work, friendship, family, womanhood, culture, language, romance, religion, and more. Was that your aim in writing this piece, or did these themes arise naturally as you began creating Mari, Delia, and their worlds? Which came first?

The story originated from the themes. The relationship between Mari and Delia became the springboard to explore both their commonalities and differences as two Latinas who in part are bonded by family, womanhood, and religion, yet also have divergent experiences and perspectives that stem from their various identities related to class, citizenship, and language. Mari’s insecurities and contradictions are reflected back to her through her relationship with her housekeeper Delia who shares her ethnic identity but lacks Mari’s class and citizenship privilege.

We know you’re working on your first novel—tell us about it! Does “Como La Flor” lay the groundwork for or play a part in it at all, or is it totally unrelated? Does it contain any similar themes?

Battle at St. Martha’s is a coming of age story of Felicity Campos, a privileged, ambitious brown girl who battles the daily microaggressions of private school life while struggling to find self-acceptance. Her Spanish is limited to pet names and swear words and she doesn’t consider herself different until she meets her new classmates, the “Legacy Girls” at St. Martha’s Academy. As a middle-class “coconut,” she struggles to connect with both her Mexican background and prep school culture. The novel shares similar themes of racial authenticity and ambivalence with “Como La Flor” but from an adolescent perspective of a young women struggling to define herself on her own terms as she experiences the pressure of different identities projected on her. Felicity, in essence, could be a younger version of Delia.

If “Como La Flor” had a playlist, what songs would be on it? In addition to the obvious, of course! 

Definitely some breakup and single girl anthems in addition to some odes to the California cannabis lifestyle. “Sorry” by Beyonce, “Independent” by Webbie, “Beverly Hills” by Weezer, “Best Life” by Cardi B, “I Get So Lonely” by Janet Jackson, and “Sativa” by Jhene Aiko…you can check out the full list on Spotify.

interviewed by Melissa Hinshaw

Mar 2

March Book Review: Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness

In our first review of March, Courtney Harler reviews Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness, out today from McSweeney’s Books. Harler writes, “In her debut…Zoffness examines her childhood through the prism of her motherhood.” Readers won’t want to miss this remarkable new collection of personal essays.

In her debut collection of personal essays, Spilt Milk, out today from McSweeney’s Books, Courtney Zoffness examines her childhood through the prism of her motherhood. Fears, loves, doubts, and desires garner fuller significance through highly self-aware, highly intricate modes of retrospection and introspection. With heart and skill, Zoffness is also able to extend the topic of conversation well beyond the domestic, framing her own daily struggles with global concerns. Even amidst worldwide instability, each essay steadfastly relies upon a kind of paradoxical bedrock of uncertainty, honesty, and vulnerability. Zoffness writes, “So I do what I often do when unsure of something. I read.” These ten essays compel the reader to do the same.

Read more.