Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

February Deadlines: 10 Prizes Available This Month

Love is in the air, and we hope that you give one of these contests the chance to fall madly in love with your work! Go ahead; let yourself be seen and appreciated!

Michael Waters Poetry Prize

There’s only a little time left to enter Southern Indiana Review’s writing contest for poetry collections! Entries must be written in English, and be under 100 pages. Judged by Michael Waters himself, the first-place winner is awarded $5000 and their collection will be published by Southern Indiana Review Press. Don’t miss it!

Entry Fee: $30 Deadline: February 1

Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing

This amazing residency is offered to two writers through Bucknell University, and the winners receive a stipend of $5000 and four months of lodging. They’re looking for writers in any creative genre in the literary arts, who are over the age of twenty-one but not enrolled in a college or university. You’ll need a twenty page sample of your prose, but this could be the opportunity for you! Learn more here.

Entry Fee: FREE Deadline: February 1

American Short(er) Fiction Prize

American Short Fiction and judge Karen Russell are looking for writers who know their way around flash fiction—could that be you? Stories must be fewer than 1000 words, but multiple entries are allowed! First place receives $1000 and guaranteed publication, and all entries are considered for publication. Details here.

Entry Fee: $18 Deadline: February 1

Flash Fiction Prize

This annual contest from Fish Publishing is a true challenge—can you write a compelling and resolved story in 300 words or fewer? Judged by Kit De Waal, first place receives $1130 and publication, and the other nine finalists are published as well. See more here!

Entry Fee: $16 Deadline: February 28

Women’s Prose Prize

This contest is for any and all writers who identify as women, who have a previously unpublished, original work of prose! Acceptable submissions include novels, short story collections, memoirs, and essay collections, between 25,000 and 80,000 words. The winner, selected by judge Ellen Meeropol, receives $1000 and publication by Red Hen Press. Learn more here!

Entry Fee: $25 Deadline: February 28

The Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction

Sarabande Books has been around for over a quarter of a century, and now you can be a part of that history! Their contest is open to any short fiction writer in English, and submissions can vary from short story collections to novellas. Judged by Manuel Muñoz, he’s awarding $2000, publication of the manuscript, and a standard royalty contract to the winner! All finalists are considered for publication. Learn more here!

Entry Fee: $29 Deadline: February 15

Sustainable Arts Foundation Award

If you have ever juggled being a parent and a writer, this is opportunity knocking! The Sustainable Arts Foundation is awarding $5000 each to twenty writers and artists, who inspire us by making creative work while raising a family. Writers can apply in creative nonfiction, fiction, graphic novels, young adult fiction, poetry, and more. Applications must include personal information, artistic information, and a portfolio. Submission guidelines here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: February 24

Slippery Elm Prize

This annual contest from Slippery Elm Literary Journal is looking for the best in both poetry and prose! Karen George is judging in poetry, up to three poems per entry. Ethan Joella is judging in prose, with a 5000 word maximum. The winner of each contest receives $1000, and all entries are considered for publication in the 2023 print issue. Submit here!

Entry Fee: $15 Deadline: February 1

Courage to Write Grants

The de Groot Foundation is looking for applications from adult writers actively engaged in writing projects who could use a motivational boost! In 2023, the de Groot Foundation is offering three LANDO grants of $7000 to writers exploring immigration issues, seven COURAGE to WRITE grants of $7000 to writers in any genre, and up to ten Writer of Note grants of $1500 selected from the pool of finalists. Applicants will need to submit a bio sketch, a letter of application, and a writing sample. Don’t miss your chance!

Entry Fee: $22 Deadline: February 15

Chautauqua Janus Prize

For the sixth time, the Chautauqua Janus Prize will be awarded this summer, and the time to apply is running out! It is meant to be a celebration of an emerging writer’s daring innovation of literary form and function that reorders and upsets readers’ imaginations in a single work of short fiction or nonfiction. Not only does the winner receive $5000 for their manuscript, they will also give a lecture in the summer and receive publication in Chautauqua. This is specifically a prize meant for emerging writers, who have yet to publish any prose books. Judged by Michael Martone. Apply here.

Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: February 28

by Kimberly Guerin

Getting Unstuck: Carefully Crafting Dialogue

In a new craft series by assistant editor Jen Dupree, we’ll explore ways to move forward in our works-in-progress, particularly those that seem to be stuck in the mud, the ones we don’t know what to do with. Today, we’re looking at sprucing up dialogue and cutting back on conversations that aren’t doing much.

As an assistant editor here at TMR, I’m reading a fair number of submissions with dialogue that’s too telling or clunky or expected or dialogue that just doesn’t sound like anything anyone would ever say. It’s often a major reason for a story or essay to get a downvote from me because if I don’t believe in what the characters say, I have a hard time believing in the story.

Done well, dialogue can create a sense of the characters, the mood of the story, and a level of anxiety over what’s not being said or what’s being misunderstood.

Let’s start with what not to do.

Novelist Emily Henry, in an episode of The Shit No One Tells You About Writing, says that writers should avoid having characters “passing the baton back and forth.” Meaning you shouldn’t have a character ask a question and another character answer in an entirely expected way:

Character 1: “How are you?”

Character 2: “Not bad, you?”

Character 1: “Doing okay.”

Rather, answer in a way that’s unexpected, or perhaps allow the character not answer at all:

Character 1: “How are you?”

Character 2: “Did you see my shoes? I can’t find where I put my shoes.”

This somewhat off-center exchange makes the reader pay attention. It’s interesting. It tells us something about the characters (Character 2 is in no mood to talk about how she is and Character 1 can’t see that she’s in obvious disarray). The baton pass, on the other hand, is just filler. It doesn’t tell us anything about the characters other than that they’re having a perfectly fine day, which might be something the writer needs to know but isn’t something the reader wants to read.

So, if you aren’t writing baton-passing exchanges, what are you writing? How are your characters supposed to sound? What should they say?

In this Tin House Live recorded talk, Dorothy Allison, Allison encourages writers to listen to what people are saying (especially when they don’t know you’re listening), and then write it down. She suggests writers “listen to how people actually talk [but] don’t write how people actually talk because three quarters of what people say is filler.” And about swearing, she says, “People cuss in extreme circumstances…and shouldn’t stories be extreme circumstances?”

An extreme circumstance doesn’t have to be a car fire or earthquake or breakup. It can be a quiet story, but what happens to the character must feel extreme—to them and to the reader. You don’t have to have expletives in your writing, but you do have to let your characters get upset. You have to let them say mean things. And dumb things. And profound, kind, tender, ridiculous things. Real things, in other words.

Allison suggests allowing physical action to strengthen or subvert the dialogue. That means if a character says “I’m fine, not hot at all” and then wipes the sweat off his brow, we have a character who does one thing and says another and we want to know why. And when we do or feel one thing but say another, we have tension. Likewise, if our character picks up a handful of pennies and lets them run through her fingers like water and then shouts “We’re rich!” we believe she feels rich. The action reinforces the truth of what the character said.

Lastly, Allison points out that monologue can create character and is useful for that, but dialogue creates story because it’s oppositional. It creates conflict. It’s an exchange. This means that while we learn a lot about a character alone on the page while she’s thinking her thoughts, thoughts do not a story make. Interiority is important, and we can touch on that another time, but dialogue is what gets things moving on the page.

Brad Listi lands on similar advice in his Otherppl podcast with Mike DeCapite. DeCapite’s new novel takes place in a gym and so, naturally, he squirreled away a notebook in his gym locker and wrote down everything he could remember overhearing while he worked out. But that’s not what made the final cut. Rather, he combined and collapsed different conversations in order to get the best, most interesting bits.

DeCapite says what he’s striving for isn’t necessarily exactly what someone said, but rather the trueness of the feeling behind what they said. I was really intrigued by this idea of coming at dialogue over and over again to find the phrasing that rings emotionally true—true not just to the veracity of what’s being said, but true to how the person saying it feels. So, maybe your character doesn’t say, “I’m depressed” but rather, “I haven’t been able to muster the energy to put on pants for a week.” Dialogue that is specific, exact, and true.

How do we get the veracity of what’s being said? With close, attentive listening. Hrishikesh Hirway, creator of the podcast Song Exploder, says in his TED talk that “when someone tells you something, there can be all these layers, all this context that you’re missing…I had to listen for those moments, those clues where there was more to be discovered.” There is always more to what is being said than what is being said.

Listen to what’s said, what’s implied, and what isn’t said. Listen to pauses, hesitations, interruptions. Listen to background noise and bodily noises. Listen to inflection and inference. And then get it on the page as carefully crafted dialogue.

by Jen Dupree

The Masters Review’s Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, Judged by Morgan Talty: Final Week!

Just one week left to get those submissions in to this year’s Winter Short Story Award for New Writers! Morgan Talty will be selecting his favorite three submissions from a pool of fifteen provided by The Masters Review’s editors. The winners will receive cash prizes, publication and agency review. Submissions may be up to 6,000 words, and must be previously unpublished. Full details can be found below or on our contest page.

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Winter is coming! The Masters Review’s Short Story Award for New Writers is a bi-annual contest that recognizes the best fiction from today’s emerging writers. Judging 2022-2023’s winter contest is Morgan Talty, author the story collection Night of the Living Rez. Winners and honorable mentions receive agency review from five agencies as well as publication. The winning story earns $3000, while the second and third place runners up receive $300 and $200, respectively. Participating agents include: Nat Sobel from Sobel Weber, Victoria Cappello from The Bent Agency, Andrea Morrison from Writers House, Sarah Fuentes from Fletcher & Company, and Heather Schroder from Compass Talent. Our mission from day one has been to support emerging writers. We want you to succeed. We want your words to be read.


We don’t have any preferences topically or in terms of style. We’re simply looking for the best. We don’t define, nor are we interested in, stories identified by their genre. We do, however, consider ourselves a publication that focuses on literary fiction. Dazzle us, take chances, and be bold.


Morgan Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. He is the author of the critically acclaimed story collection Night of the Living Rez from Tin House Books, which won the New England Book Award, was a finalist for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, and is a finalist for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. His writing has appeared in Granta, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, Narrative Magazine, LitHub, and elsewhere. A winner of the 2021 Narrative Prize, Talty’s work has been supported by the Elizabeth George Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts (2022). Talty is an Assistant Professor of English in Creative Writing and Native American and contemporary Literature at the University of Maine, Orono, and he is on the faculty at the Stonecoast MFA in creative writing as well as the Institute of American Indian Arts. Talty is also a Prose Editor at The Massachusetts Review. He lives in Levant, Maine.



New Voices: “Jaja-Haha” by Madari Pendas

Today in New Voices, we are excited to share “Jaja-Haha” by Madari Pendas. This story follows Freddy—Federico, as he used to be called—a new executive producer for The Late Show with David Letterman in the late 1980s. An old friend from Cuba resurfaces, a talent agent, calling in a favor to book a new act on the Letterman show. “Jaja-Haha” is a story that explores assimilation and all its unseen impacts, as Freddy must weigh the status quo—”Give ’em what they’re used to,” he’s told by the former EP—against the promoting the promising Cuban act Porfirio represents.

The club was a popular haunt. It was a renovated basement that still smelled like the inside of a cupboard. The space was cramped. Freddy was certain they were violating all sorts of fire codes. While grooming Freddy to take over, Jack had insisted on sending underlings to night clubs. That was the point of being the boss, according to Jack. “Have someone else eat shit.” Freddy didn’t realize how much he missed the frenetic energy and charge of the club scene. He felt a tingle in his fingers as he strolled in.

1989, Midtown Manhattan

Freddy was unaware that as he worked the past was storming down Broadway and 53rd, past security, past his secretary, and into The Late Show with David Letterman offices.

He perked up when he heard a knock at his closed door. Before he could ask who was there, the door swung open and there he was: Porfirio Suárez.

Freddy shook his head; it was too early for this nonsense. He had only recently been promoted to executive producer and didn’t have the time or patience to deal with a cunning talent agent, even if that cunning talent agent was an old friend. “No, no, no. I’m busy.”

Porfirio closed the door and took a seat. “Tranquilo. I’ll be quick. I’m faster than a virgin at a brothel.”

Freddy watched as Porfirio took out a headshot from a peeling brown valise. Even when Freddy was an associate producer, people still slipped headshots under his door, into his mailbox, and even into the bags of his lunch orders.

“Come on, I have work to do.”

“Bueno, this is what happens when you don’t return my calls.” Porfirio slid the headshot across the desk. “This is your next guy. One of the best upcoming comics on the scene right now.”

Freddy looked at the picture. The young man in the photo had a one-guard buzz, an angular jaw, a long nose, and hauntingly deep-set eyes. His collar was undone and revealed a gold chain over a shock of chest hair. The black-and-white tint of the image made it difficult for Freddy to tell how dark the kid’s skin was. “What’s his name? How old is he?”

“Yusniel Fernández. Twenty-two.”

There was silence between them. Freddy looked at the photo again. He had always stayed quiet when the more senior EPs asked him about a particular Hispanic comic. Freddy didn’t want to seem partial or like he was pushing an agenda. He wanted to show his bosses he could do the job just like them. He had only gotten the promotion last Monday. The retiring EP, Jack, had told Freddy, “Give ‘em what they’re used to. They know what they like. And they like what they know.”

Freddy slid the photo away. “Let’s talk some other time, okay? I already have the comics booked for the next month.”

“So book him for the month after,” Porfirio insisted. “You got some power now. Use it, viejo.”

“I’m not a viejo. We’re the same age.”

“Si and fifty-four is the new forty-four, right? This fucking industry and age. Come on. You’re finally the gatekeeper and you’re still keeping the gate closed.”

Freddy rubbed his temples. “Some other time. Please.”

“Federico, por favor—”

“Don’t call me that.” Freddy looked to make sure the door was closed. He didn’t use that name anymore.

To continue reading “Jaja-Haha” click here.

Litmag Roadmap: New York State

Hop in, as we head back to New York to explore the rest of the state outside the city! New York State has a long history of excellent literary institutions – and these magazines are a big part of why!

The state of New York has been publishing the nation’s finest short literature since at least 1850, with the foundation of Harper’s—but even outside the City, literary magazines are still thriving.

Vestal Review

Vestal Review lauds itself as being the “longest-running flash fiction magazine on the planet.” They’ve been publishing fiction up to 500 words since 2000, and have featured stories from writers like Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Stuart Dybek (all former TMR judges, by the way), along with Robert Olen Butler, Pamela Painter, and basically anyone you might associate with great flash fiction. Contributors are paid $50 for their work, and they are open for your submissions again beginning in February.


With its first issue published in 1998, Fence has been kicking for 25 years this year—and its mission remains the same: publishing innovative literature that seeks to “interrogate, collaborate with, and bedevil all the systems that bring new writing to light.” You’ll find scans of the table of contents and editor’s note from their very first issue (check out Rick Moody with a story there on pg. 22), which is a neat little window into the past. Fence is open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and “other,” so if your work straddles borders or might be too eclectic for anywhere else, check out Fence.


EPOCH has been publishing regularly since 1947 — housed at Cornell University, it is managed by the school’s faculty and MFA program and is a source of funding for their first-year MFA students. The current issues features new fiction from TMR contributor Carla Diaz (read “Mercy” here!). EPOCH is only open to electronic submissions in August and January, but is open for snail mail submissions between September and February (if anyone out there is still mailing their submissions). The journal is open for poetry, fiction, essays, comics and visual art, so there’s a home for all of your creative work here.

Pine Hills Review

A newer journal among the long-standing literary institutions in New York is Pine Hills Review. Established in 2014 by The College of Saint Rose’s MFA program, Pine Hills Review publishes “artful, honest and compelling work from new and established writers.” The journal publishes its work online and is open for submissions of fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and visual art from September through April, and they are especially interested in hybrid or experimental works.


Nearly not making this list, Conjunctions was saved from being shuttered by its host institution, Bard College, after an outpouring of support from its readers last spring, just one day after EiC Bradford Morrow posted a good-bye letter on its site. Conjunctions is entering its 42nd year of publication in 2023, and continues to publish and celebrate excellence in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and the in-between, both in print and online. Submissions are open year round for mailed submissions, but only twice a year online through Submittable.

by Cole Meyer

What We Read in 2022

As we enter 2023, The Masters Review would like to celebrate the terrific year of reading behind us and wish everyone an even better year ahead. Here’s to 2023!

In 2022, I finished my MFA, which meant finishing my story collection, which meant hours and weeks and months of reading, and writing, and editing. And stress. (Everything worked out, in the end.) But what it lead to was a months-long period in which I was grateful, outside of work, to just… not read (or write). Outside of work, over the summer, I read less than I have since probably high school. And honestly, it was nice. But it was even better once I picked up a book again and sank back into what I love the most. Of my standouts this year, I’d put Stuart Dybek’s lovely The Coast of Chicago, Dan Chaon’s Among the Missing and Where You’ll Find Me and Other Stories by Ann Beattie at the top. I also revisited The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund and read Alice Munro’s “Miles City, Montana” like five times. I also want to give a special shoutout to This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey by Steve Almond, which is the perfect little guidebook to craft and helped me immensely throughout the MFA experience.

Cole Meyer

I’ve been keeping track of the books I read (in a notebook, handwritten, old-school) for the past couple of years and in 2022 I read one hundred books! I have no idea if I’ve ever done that before and I didn’t know I’d done it until I counted at the end of December, so it wasn’t like a goal I achieved, but I’ll still take it. My favorites this year: Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens, The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gundy, Young Mungo by Douglas Stewart. I don’t usually love a ghost story, but Briefly, A Delicious Life is so much more than that. It’s breathtaking. The Rabbit Hutch is weird in all the right ways and I personally liked Young Mungo even better than Shuggie Bain, but it’s also more heartbreaking. I recently started a short story group (like a book group, but we read short stories instead) at my library and the first one I assigned was Elizabeth McCracken’s “Property” and I was reminded about how it is, in my opinion, a perfect story.

Jen Dupree

Books that are both compulsively readable and thought provoking hit a sweet spot for me. Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins Valdez met the mark on both counts. At the beginning of the story, Civil Townsend starts a nursing job at a family planning clinic in Montgomery, Alabama during the 1970s. Civil, excited to make a difference in her African American community, is surprised that her first patients are just eleven and thirteen. Based on true events, the novel exposes a dark episode of forced sterilization in American history, but the issues of women’s reproductive rights and how healthcare is administered to the most vulnerable among us is no less relevant today.

I also read two books toward the end of the year that were bleakly comic in the best way. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason is the story of a forty-year-old Londonite as she comes to terms with her mental illness. The narrator in We All Want Impossible Things by Catherine Newman must cope with the impending death of a close friend. Both books also explore relationships, motherhood, and middle age. They made me laugh and cry in equal measure and had me reading paragraphs out loud to my husband and texting pictures of pages to my friends.

Melissa Bandy

This past year was a year of finally. I finished The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, wading cautiously into his ocean of mathematics and abstraction. This author recreated the universe in virtual format, asking the god-mode player to continually correct and re-correct the game until they got it right. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, the author also made a pitch for saving our environmentally-challenged world, interspersing scientific essays with fiction in hopes of reaching presidents and world leaders. Note that he was successful on both counts. As the last few years have brought California waves of fires and floods as well as COVID-19, I’m listening along with them. And lo and behold, I have finished The Overstory, by Richard Powers. The book made me want to talk to trees. Okay, I actually did. This year, my aunt, the career librarian, passed away. At her funeral, I read a poem I composed about her life as a tree, from the sapling planted on her parents’ lawn to her lifelong work with books. She was our family’s library, storing genealogy and legend, and I will miss her.

Jill Bronfman

Recently, on the streets of Brighton, UK, I passed galleries selling and exhibiting photographic art from the sixties and seventies. Brighton youth were dressed, generally speaking, in either post punk attire or whatever Instagram was telling them. Where had the revolution gone?

Emmanuelle Pagano has three novels translated from French into English. In 2022 I read two of them. One Day I’ll Tell You Everything, which won the European Prize for Literature, tells a tale of modern rural France, set on a remote high frozen plateau in the Ardeche. Adele is the school bus driver, picking up kids from isolated homes and taking them to school along empty icy roads. She was born on the plateau as a boy and is now a woman, except when she returns no one recognizes her.  This novel of place and identity, brilliantly translated by Penny Hueston, weaves a tale, modern as it is ancient. “When I was a little boy, I would often pretend to be dead. I wanted people to weep over me. I wept for myself, usually near a tree, under it or up inside it, just like I’m crying today, a woman weeping in my weeping birch tree..’

The other book, Trysting, is an extraordinary collection of very short pieces, sometimes just a paragraph, of liaisons, relationships, want, regret and ruthless betrayal. Pagano’s characters are sometimes men, sometimes women, sometimes both, neither, everything and nothing. I had to look up the word tryst, as it is a word I have never used, and this is what this book is: a series of ordinary trysts, where sometimes little happens, but it is written in the most extraordinary way.

Where’s the revolution? Here, sublime, amongst Pagano’s words.

Ben Gilbert

I read primarily short stories in 2022, but of the few books I read, Eugene Marten’s, In the Blind, stuck with me the most. I’ve read most of his work and have loved all of it, but In the Blind is so clinical in its prose that it made me constantly distracted with how well-crafted it was. The book follows a recently released inmate as he takes on and immerses himself in the world of locksmithing/picking. Without spoiling anything, the sparse nature of Marten’s prose and the focus on the act of picking locks, creates this deeper nebula of self-searching for where it went wrong and what do in the aftermath of it. I can’t recommend this book enough, and don’t be put off by the slow start either!

Some other books I really enjoyed as well were Hiroko Oyamada’s, The Hole, and Agustina Bazterrica’s, Tender is the Flesh. Both I finished in one sitting and both kept me reading for their surreal landscapes as well as their commentary on gender roles. Hiroko Oyamada also has another book, The Factory, that I’ve heard is similar to The Hole in its writing style, so that is where I’ll be starting 2023 at.

Robert Warf

In 2022I was intrigued with the plot and usage of craft in The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka. It explores the story of a group of swimmers who swim at the University pool regularly to find respite from their mundane lives. When the pool shuts down for safety reasons, it disrupts their lives, particularly Alice, who is showing early signs of dementia. The author shifts points of view by using the first-person plural as the voice of the group of swimmers. Then it shifts to the second person, the institutionalized voice addressing Alice, and to the first person, narrated from the perspective of Alice’s daughter. What fascinated me was how the shifting point of view lends well to a typical swimming pool structure. The first-person plural denotes the shallow end of the pool, the institutionalized voice goes a little deeper, and the first person depicts the actual depth of the pool. The Swimmers struck a chord on many levels as a swimmer and triathlete.

Swetha Amit

This year brought me two books that I’ve been trying to foist on everyone I meet just so I can have an informed audience for my gushing. The first is Devotion by Hannah Kent, a fusion of historical fiction and magical realism. Ostensibly about the 1836 immigration of Lutheran Christians from Prussia to Australia, this is really a love story between two women, a love so encompassing that it extends into the landscapes around them—from German forests to the Australian bush. The second is a collection of essays from brilliant culture writer and one of the Internet’s favorite lesbians Jill Gutowitz, titled Girls Can Kiss Now. I was anticipating hundreds of pages of Jill’s humor and pop culture observations, which it fully delivered on, but I also found an unflinching vulnerability and an earnest portrayal of uniquely queer experiences that left me crying as often as I was laughing.

Lauren Finkle

2022 has been an excellent year for me in books—I read some truly unforgettable things this year. First of all, I was introduced to the magical world of Jennifer Egan when I read The Candy House (2022). Egan is a master of narration, seamlessly blending chapters with entirely different narrators into one novel exploring a technological invention that allows people to access every memory they’ve ever had. If this subject sounds disturbing to you, I promise that Egan’s style of writing is anything but dark—her prose is filled with humor and wit throughout, to the point where I was laughing aloud during some parts of this book. After thoroughly enjoying Middlemarch, I decided to sink my teeth into The Mill on the Floss (1860). This is a long novel, but I promise it will not disappoint. The Mill on the Floss is a coming-of-age narrative about a young intellectual girl who struggles to conform to her small, conservative hometown’s expectations of her. Eliot is incredibly gifted at exploring the difference between expectations and reality, with an astounding level of emotional complexity. Whereas Austen will give you a page with the happy marriage ending you were waiting for, Eliot will show you what happens when that happy marriage falls apart. For this reason, I find her a rare breed among Victorian novelists. Coming back to recently published works, Pig Years (2022) by Ellyn Gaydos was a pleasure to read. A memoir about life as a farmhand in Upstate New York and Vermont, Pig Years is a chronicle of the cycles of life and embracing all the joy, beauty, ugliness and tragedy that comes along with that. Gaydos’s prose is so melodic and rich that it often reads like poetry, making every aspect of her experiences come to life in stunning detail.

Alexandra Schoenborn

Dur e Aziz Amna’s novel American Fever is a deeply subversive and compulsively readable coming-of-age story. It’s about Hira, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani girl who is dying to escape her constrained life in Pakistan, and is accepted into an exchange program to study in the U.S. for a year. Hira is briefly in Rawalpindi at the beginning of the book before journeying to rural Oregon where she lives with a white single mother and her daughter. In the U.S., she attends high school, goes to church, makes friends, has her first kiss, faces racism and Islamophobia, and is eventually diagnosed with tuberculosis and put into quarantine before returning to Pakistan. These experiences might seem predictable (other than the tuberculosis bit) but Hira is a deceptively complex protagonist. On every page, her sassy and brash observations about the environment resist familiar themes of alienation and assimilation we’ve come to expect from American immigrant novels. Soon after her arrival, she says: “There’s a strain of story this could fall into. The foreigner trying to fit in, hindered by accent and Fahrenheit and the Imperial system…The outsider on the periphery of America. The entranced documenter of America. The truth—I was bloody bored…Within weeks, I went from homesick, to curious about America, to realizing how elementary my curiosities were, such clichés within themselves that I lost any desire to entertain them.” Hira captures the sullen certainty of being a teenager, as well as the exhilaration and confusion of leaving home at a young age. Her sudden distance from Pakistan also gives her a new perspective on home, and complicates her growing consciousness of who she is and where she belongs, and whether it’s even possible to know these things. American Fever is poignant, unflinching, and flat-out hilarious, and easily the best book I read in 2022.

Jawziya Zaman

Reading Through the Awards: The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty

In a continuation of our series of micro-reviews, assistant editor Brandon Williams brings together a group of ardent readers to give their quick-hit impressions of recent novels which have won major awards from the literary world. Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, winner of the 2022 National Book Award for Fiction, is our next selection.

Quick Book Summary (from the official blurb): “Blandine isn’t like the other residents of her building. An online obituary writer. A young mother with a dark secret. A woman waging a solo campaign against rodents—neighbors, separated only by the thin walls of a low-cost housing complex in the once bustling industrial center of Vacca Vale, Indiana. Welcome to the Rabbit Hutch. Ethereally beautiful and formidably intelligent, Blandine shares her apartment with three teenage boys she neither likes nor understands, all, like her, now aged out of the state foster care system that has repeatedly failed them, all searching for meaning in their lives. Set over one sweltering week in July and culminating in a bizarre act of violence that finally changes everything, The Rabbit Hutch is a savagely beautiful and bitingly funny snapshot of contemporary America, a gorgeous and provocative tale of loneliness and longing, entrapment and, ultimately, freedom.”

The Rabbit Hutch is about how our lives, even those that meet in the most fleeting moments or maybe not even directly at all, have long-lasting effects on each other. How does a passing conversation between strangers linger? How does a mean comment on an obituary come to be? Gunty does this by introducing us to a large cast of narrators. Each character is at a different stage of life and is facing their own problems. The only thing most seem to have in common is that they’re all tied to a run-down apartment complex known as the Rabbit Hutch. As the story unfolds, their sometimes very brief moments of interactions eventually snowball into a very violent act.

Isolation is what ties all of these stories together. At first, aside from some of them being neighbors or roommates, the many narrators really don’t have a lot to do with each other. They are each simply living their lives independent and lonely. A group of recently aged-out foster kids are learning how to interact with attraction. A young mother deals with the stress of a new baby. A woman deals with the stress of her job as the moderator for an obituary website. The man-child of a recently deceased celebrity seeks to announce to the world how terrible of a mother she was. Each of these eccentric characters lives their life more or less independent of the others. Bit by bit, their lives are shown to be more interconnected than they realize. The new mom grieves for the celebrity. The celebrity’s obituary is posted to a website one neighbor moderates. A tossed mouse carcass from one neighbor leads to revenge on another. A chance meeting while doing laundry leads to a lasting impression. Still, despite each of them being desperate to connect with others, each character is unwilling to simply open the door and connect to their neighbor. So it’s isolation, this self-imposed mindset and not a physical barrier, that becomes the central focus of the novel. It’s a timely message for a world where many of us, me included, don’t know our neighbors.

Gunty does a great job at making each of her many, many narrators unique even while they’re all grappling with the same isolation, the same desperate desire to be seen and wanted by someone. No two characters attempt tackle their shared problem the same way. Some become desperate for connection and seek it in inappropriate relationships and others, still desperate, go on to commit more desperate acts in order to simply be noticed. Some lash out in anger, repelling people away. Some don’t try to fight it at all. The Rabbit Hutch becomes a reminder that no matter how alone we may feel, we are all still a part of the world and each of our actions helps the world take shape for everyone else.

Rebecca Calloway

The captivating prose in Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch constantly made me forget I was reading a dark novel. It addressed various subjects including animal cruelty, mental illness, isolation, and beliefs to name a few. I could fill pages trying to summarize all the characters and their happenings and it would not matter because you’d need to read this beautifully written novel to truly capture what Gunty is illustrating. The Rabbit Hutch is not plot-driven, yet why did I find myself curiously turning each page and by the end, anxiously waiting to read the words I already knew were written there? Gunty ambitiously launches us from character to character, past to present, an entertaining self-written obituary, a comment section sprinkled with emojis, a list of quotes and even a chapter that boldly, and understandably so, presents itself as a graphic novel. While it is easy to get lost in the structure of some of these chapters, there is only one, in which gossip is interwoven between high school test questions, that I found obstructive.

The rather humorous novel takes place in Vacca Vale, Indiana, a deteriorating city plagued with more than just poverty and benzene contamination with environmental repercussions as a result. The novel begins, ends and always circles back to the Rabbit Hutch, which is an affordable apartment complex that houses most of the numerous, damaged and outcast-type characters we pan between. We get to know most of them on a hauntingly deep and personal level thanks to third-person narration. Frequently throughout her piece, Gunty mentions rabbits and it is impossible to ignore. From Death wearing socks embroidered with white rabbits to rabbit figurines staring frantically at whoever looks at them, I think they serve as a reminder to the reader that it is the characters themselves who are driving the story. The more we learn about these individuals, who at first glance seem like a collection of sporadic short stories, the more we realize they matter the most. Not one character is alike neither in their persona nor their devastating past nor current adversities. Yet they all share the same burden of trying to persevere in a dying city with little hope that those offering to help will actually deliver.

Granted, there were some characters and dialogue that I had trouble digesting because I didn’t think they were genuine and even mesmerizing writing couldn’t overshadow this. However, in the end, I can easily say that most of our beloved characters ended up being interconnected and significant, driving Gunty’s message home: humans need to start taking each other more seriously. I would recommend this novel to those that are patient enough to immerse themselves in the minds of seemingly random characters in order to appreciate them as a whole in the end.

Brittenny De La Cruz

For a deep dive into character, Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch doesn’t disappoint. Set in an affordable housing complex in a fictional Midwestern town, the apartment’s inhabitants provide a variety of personalities to explore. The banal, the minutiae, the absurd—all of a character’s interiority and history is covered in detail whether they appear for a few pages or multiple chapters.

But as wide-ranging as these characters are, and as experimental as the book becomes, The Rabbit Hutch avoids reading like a character’s summary because all of these details serve a purpose: to understand what drives a person. And, interestingly enough, this commonality is simple. Blandine Watkins, one of the central characters of the novel, puts it pointedly: “in the end, she was insignificant to the person who was most significant to her.” That slight imbalance, between what we mean to ourselves and to others, is enough to set all the cascading events in The Rabbit Hutch into motion.

June Sham

It is often said that characters should always take center stage in a novel, and in the case of Tess Gunty’s, The Rabbit Hutch, they certainly do. Of them all, Blandine is queen. I found myself attracted to Blandine with a strange morbid fascination, very similar to the she-mystics Blandine herself idolizes.

The narrative, which shifts beautifully from mundane and almost expected tragedies to over-the-top and nearly fantastical ones, only builds on this mysticism than surrounds her. The other characters, while full of their own lush issues, all orbit around Blandine like minor players in a Greek tragedy. The strongest characters were the ones that became nearly archetypal in the roles they played at the end of Blandine’s story. However, when the scope of the narrative expanded past these characters to encompass the entirety of the Rabbit Hutch Apartments and all who live there, it dipped a little into overindulgence for me.

The writing itself had plenty of interesting concepts that hit their marks well, from blog posts to poetry, to an entire chapter of paintings. However, it also had its pitfalls. These came in the form of dialogue that felt unnatural for the sake of “saying something” and moments where it felt the author paused the flow of a scene to insist upon some grander point that was inferable and really didn’t need to be made.

Allene Keshishian

Curated by Brandon Williams

From The Archives: “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” by E. Y. Smith—Discussed by Benjamin Van Voorhis

E. Y. Smith’s “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” appeared in New Voices in April 2019, but this story about the last of a dying species is worth looking back on for its beauty and humor and sense of loss. It’s a timely piece that, in all likelihood, will only get timelier.

Crafting the Intangible

From its very first sentence, “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” feels like the kind of anecdote a friend might tell you over dinner.

“Here’s a story that you don’t hear every day,” it begins. “I once knew a man who owned the last red-feathered Austrian goose.” Casual, laden with personality, yet it’s easy to suspect there might be something important down the line—after all, this particular goose is the last of its kind. We don’t know anything about the people involved, but the stakes are already high.

He said that it came from a wintry mountainside, where the lakes had just about frozen over, and now he was adapting the goose to the winters of the Bronx. Well, I said, it just about makes sense that the poor thing would die off, seeing as geese can’t survive on mountaintops. Their feathers freeze and they can’t huddle together close enough to sustain the heat. But my friend shook his head. No, he said. It’s the people that do it. The geese’s feathers can withstand the snow and the ice, but the people can’t seem to stop hunting them. Anyway, said my friend. You should come and see the goose sometime before it’s too late. I think you’d like him.

We’re not in scene, there’s no sensory detail or direct dialogue, no real setting up of conflict—just this goose, the person who owns it, and the narrator, who makes some basic—and wrong—assumptions about the goose and why it’s the last of its species. And yet, there’s a feeling of both movement and tension here that propels us into the next paragraph. So, why does it work?

For one thing, the narrator renders all dialogue indirect (that is, in-line, un-quotation-marked). While this doesn’t create as much white space—and therefore breathing room—as direct dialogue might, it sits us firmly in the narrator’s perspective, filtering even more of the world through her telling than a typical first-person narrator would. Also, it’s worth noting that we open with contradiction. The narrator asserts herself, her friend corrects her. There’s already a disconnect between our point-of-view character and her surroundings, a move that always carries with it a sense of built-in tension.

But these decisions are circling around some pretty fundamental concepts. First, we have the narrative voice, already providing us with a strong sense of who the narrator is without us having seen her do much of anything at all. Second, the piece is starting to build an argument. (You might also call this “theme”—but I probably won’t.)

What the voice and argument of a piece have in common is that it’s easy to think of them as “intangible” craft elements—not because you can’t see them in action, or because they’re essentially unknowable, but because it’s sometimes difficult to draw a straight line between the choices a writer makes and an “effective” voice or argument, and therefore the way we as writers talk about them tends toward the floaty. With a more “tangible” craft element—say, pacing—those lines can appear straighter. A scene with more detail moves slower, and one with less detail moves faster. Easy peasy, at least in theory. But how do you define a strong voice versus a weak one? When is a story’s argument too overbearing, or failing to come through at all?

One of the great things about “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” is that it’s a fantastic example of these “intangible” craft elements in action. Its sense of propulsion comes not solely through interpersonal conflict or a character’s arc, but also through a steady and intentional development of both a character’s inner life/narrative voice and an overarching external thematic movement.

The Right Words

What does it mean to say a voice is “strong” or “weak”? In fact, what is narrative voice in the first place, and why does it matter? I’ve heard writers explain it as something like the style of writing, or the quality that lend writing its uniqueness. But those are pretty vague terms, and when we’re thinking about why something works, or how to put this stuff into practice, “style” and “quality” aren’t exactly helpful.

A more useful way to think about voice, I’d argue, is as the diction and syntax a narrator is most likely to employ. Framed this way, voice becomes an extension of character rather than an extension of the writer’s sensibilities (even though of course it is); it allows a writer to think more deeply not just about who a character is at their core, but about the little decisions and qualities that inform a reader’s impression of that character, and lead us to know them intimately. Narratives with “strong” voices might employ a particularly unusual vocabulary or sentence structure. On the other hand, a “weak” voice does not a weak story make; windowpane prose can be as effective as stained glass. The strength and quality of a narrative voice is, like anything else, a conscious craft decision that creates a specific effect in the reader.

Let’s return, for instance, to the narrator of “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose,” and her affinity for indirect dialogue. This choice serves a couple important purposes. First, it ratchets up the strength of the voice. When you tell someone else a story in your day to day life (as in an anecdote over dinner), this is how most of us render dialogue. Therefore, it’s one of the major factors creating the piece’s “told” quality, which by the end feels almost parable-ish. Next, it gives us data about our first-person narrator, namely that she herself is not direct, that she is indecisive and unmotivated and anxious.

Other choices create this impression, too, and other, equally significant impressions. She’s impulsive (“On the subway, I was overcome with an urge to see the red-feathered Austrian goose”), judgmental (“Strange tone, I thought, from a man who doesn’t want anything to last”), and anxious again (“By now, he was expecting me, as I had sent a flurry of apologetic texts and pretty much begged him to let me see the goose, but when I got to the door, he could only ask: What do you want?”). Emphases mine. These are all character-building choices, but they’re also, crucially, choices that create a sense of momentum, and that eventually build into the piece’s argument.

A Sense of Aboutness

All stories are about something larger than themselves, of course. Having an argument is a forgone conclusion. Even the sparest stories are out to convince you the world looks a certain way, that characters really act this way or that. What’s not forgone, of course, is using a fictional setup as a vehicle to tackle some broader thematic conversation, which is at heart a craft decision like any other.

In fiction, building an effective argument is like walking a tightrope. Too vague, and readers will come away without a clear picture of what it is the writer is actually trying to say. Too overt, and readers may feel condescended to, or reject the story as mere allegory. What makes “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” work on this front is that there’s nothing “mere” about it. Smith does a lot of scene work to make us believe in this world as a real, lived-in place, from the narrator’s nights out at the jazz club to the Bachelor marathon to visceral descriptions of subway rides. Including such specific, concrete details is, among other things, a way to avoid any read of this piece as simply allegory. It’s clear that the narrator is a fleshed-out character, and so is Ben, and so is the owner of the Austrian goose.

At the same time, it’s all too clear that the goose is not just a goose. Nor is Ben just a Tinder date, or the subway just a subway. All these things, in addition to being exactly what they are, build toward a sense of the ephemeral, an indictment of inaction about environmental collapse, or climate change, or whatever manmade apocalypse fits best. The narrator waits and waits before going to see the goose, and by the time she feels any sense of urgency about it, it’s already too late. There’s nothing she can do, and it’s not clear she would—or could—have done anything to help the goose in the first place.

I covered my ears. It’s a real tragedy, I said, but all my friend could do was look away toward the opened boxes. He had dug his hands into his pockets and offered me something to drink. I said, No thank you, and we stood there a while just listening to the bird. If you have courage, he started to say, but then stopped, I think, because he didn’t know what it would mean.

The narrator’s actions here work in concert with the metaphor, but they also feel like natural reactions to the situation. She really would cover her ears in response to a wailing goose, really would refuse a drink offered out of an awkward kind of hopelessness. She would, of course, project her own thoughts onto her friend’s half-sentence. If she doesn’t know what courage means, why would he?

Stick the Landing

The goose isn’t extinct yet when we leave it, but it will be, and this fits into the sense of a world coming apart at the seams, straining but not yet broken. Our narrator knows this, but she feels both helpless to act and overcome by the inertia of simply living her life—which is exactly how “The Plight of the Red-Feathered Austrian Goose” builds its argument so effectively. We’re looking at it through the lens of a character with a strong narrative voice and a rich interior life, who feels very much like she belongs in the world as Smith writes it.

The argument, in other words, is not an argument at all. It’s a question with the force of an argument, felt most acutely when Smith lets the veneer slip just a little bit, just enough to see the bitter irony of it:

Below me, the people dawdled, certain that there could not be a red-feathered Austrian goose. I told myself that it was fine. That there could not be a better ending. That there were all sorts of special geese. That we were too important.

Finally, the narrator sees the goose as Smith wants us to see it: a zero-sum game. The goose’s death can only be a net benefit to the human race. But that the narrator has to “tell herself” this says exactly the opposite, that the loss matters because it is a loss, and that it’s devastating for exactly the same reason. That the human race can be, in the end, just as ephemeral as a red-feathered Austrian goose.

But Smith, wisely, doesn’t let us land on this note. We return to the narrator’s physical space, a set of concrete, grounding details:

We were stuck in a tunnel for a long time, and I thought that the conductor might say anything, but he stayed silent on the intercom until we started moving again. He made up some story about a delay in the communications or static interference. Some reason.

Because we’re in scene, it feels like we’ve come a long way from the opening paragraph. But at the same time, we’re exactly where we started. Indirect dialogue, the casual dismissiveness of “Some reason,” the thematic resonance of a person failing to acknowledge a problem and the narrator’s assumption that he’s fabricated an excuse. The echoes are subtle, but they create a sense of cohesion that’s all the more powerful for how little these moves draw attention to themselves. In many ways, we’re in the same place we’ve been the whole time—a world, an argument, and a voice strong enough to take us through it.

by Benjamin Van Voorhis

New Voices: “Used Scars” by Patrina Corsetti

“We were all being watched. At least that’s what we thought.” Today in New Voices, we are excited to share “Used Scars” by Patrina Corsetti! In this story, a paranoid expat in China witnesses what she believes to be a violent assault in the apartment across the alley. But the reality of what she saw is questioned by her companion and she must fight through delusions to understand what she saw, understand, in the end, her own inaction. Corsetti’s clipped prose propels us into the bleakest alleys, never slowing down to let us catch our breath. Hang on and read below.

Out on the balcony, I sat on the ground next to a splatter of Gino’s dried blood. Across the alley, a rat climbed in a window and my girl crawled out a different one. She didn’t have a fancy expat balcony like me. She had to use a window to get to her laundry. She took her time clipping the wet clothes. She knew I was watching her. She knew I could see her right eye swelled shut. We chatted about the weather: hazy, polluted with a chance of smog. No rain. Nothing to clean the air was on the horizon.

We were all being watched. At least that’s what we thought.

Sometimes, we even imagined the watching into existence so that we had an excuse for our paranoia, which was very real.

“Don’t let them think you don’t want to be watched,” Ed With The Bad Teeth had said.

Tomorrow when I can stand straighter, I will remove those thick curtains strung across the balcony’s sliding glass door. Then they will know I have nothing to hide.

I’d been home from Huizhou’s only foreign-owned bar for about an hour, soaked with enough whiskey for one night and part of one morning. First, I arranged my one-room apartment to look unarranged because Gino would be coming over and I wanted to come across as nonchalant. Gino was a full-blown expat and the only other American I knew living in the city. I had a teaching contract that expired at the end of the summer and then I’d be gone, hopefully earlier if I could sneak away while no one was looking. Once my room had just the right amount of indifference, I watched Huizhou, China twinkle from the balcony and I waited. Gino hadn’t told me he would stop by; I just knew. I’d been seeing things for a while and hearing voices for even longer, some real, some imagined, some both. I was afraid to know the difference.

Before I’d left the bar, one of those expat scumbags had slipped me a dumpling. Those rat fuckers loved to slip things. They knew I was off the dumplings. They knew the stuffing made me paranoid. There was no telling what I had unknowingly digested and now I wouldn’t sleep. I’d just missed zoning out to 30 Rock, the only program aired in English each night so I lit a cigarette. There was nothing else I could do except to breathe in and to breathe out and to wait.

It was humid. Garbage was burning. Air particles hummed. Everybody smoking cigarettes or strung out on the night and afraid to sleep was watching. I wanted to say I knew something bad was about to happen, but I couldn’t remember how.

“I believe the word you are looking for is premonition, Teacher Voice said.

“Premonition?” I asked.

“Yes, premonition. It means to have a strong feeling that something unpleasant is about to happen,” Teacher Voice said.

“Premonition. Yes, that’s it. Thank you.”

I’d only been living in China for half a year but had already lost the ability to remember hundreds of common words on the spot. I started hearing Teacher Voice a few months back. She rescued as many of those unstable words gathering on the slick edge of my memory as she could. She’d talk them down from the ledge, wrap a blanket around their shaking shoulders, safely bring them back to my vocabulary. We both knew that eventually she would no longer be able to reason with them. Soon they would insist on jumping and be gone forever. This was not paranoia. It was bound to happen.

“The word you are looking for is inevitable,” Teacher Voice said.

“Oh, yeah. Inevitable,” I said.

“Yes, inevitable. It means unavoidable,” T.V. said.

“That does sound right. Thank you.”

I puffed away, watching the countless uncovered windows glow above the streets of Huizhou. Then, watching only one uncovered window because it was impossible not to.

Before I saw her face go down in the window across from my balcony, I sparked my lighter for a second smoke. Then her body fell. Not a slow, graceful fall. Not a timber of a fall. She got chopped hard and fast, hair and limbs and bark crashing to the couch. After her face went down, I smoked one and half cigarettes. I smoked one and half cigarettes and picked at the zit collection sprouting heads on my chin before I did one goddam single thing to try to stop it.

To continue reading “Used Scars” click here.

January Book Review: The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley ruthlessly interrogates what it means to be successful as a Black woman, a Millennial, and a liberal living in an urban center” writes reviewer Joanna Acevedo in her first TMR book review of 2023. Cauley’s debut released earlier this week from Soft Skull Press. Check out the full review at the link below!

The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley ruthlessly interrogates what it means to be successful as a Black woman, a Millennial, and a liberal living in an urban center. Protagonist Aretha has it all—a so-called “good job” at a corporate law firm, a best friend, Nia, who is a well-off private practice therapist, and an active dating life, but she still craves more. She wants to make partner at her law firm, not because it’s what she really wants, but because it’s what she thinks it’s what she’s supposed to want, and she wants to meet the perfect guy, because deep down, she’s lonely. When she meets Aaron, roaster for Tactical Coffee, on a dating app, everything seems like it’s written in the stars. But is it?

Read more.

A Conversation With Jen Michalski, Author of The Company of Strangers

Jen Michalski is the author of three novels, three short story collections, and a couplet of novellas. Her latest novel, You’ll Be Fine, was a 2021 Buzzfeed “Best Small Press Book,” a 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist, and was selected as one of the “Best Books We Read This Year” by the Independent Press Review. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Poets & Writers, The Literary Hub, Psychology Today, Writer’s Digest, and more. She’s the editor of the online literary weekly jmww and currently lives in Southern California. The Company of Strangers is out today through Braddock Avenue Books.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on the publication of The Company of Strangers. I really enjoyed it. I’m also a big fan of Braddock Avenue Books. This is your first book with them—how did you hook up with Jeff Condran and the BAB team? How’s the experience been?

 Jen Michalski: Thanks, Curtis! I don’t know when I’ve never not been aware of Braddock Avenue Books—I remember doing some readings with Aubrey Hirsh when she was promoting Why We Never Talk About Sugar almost a decade ago, and I really enjoyed your novel, Lovepain, and the years in which they published the Best Small Fictions series, Tyrone Jaeger’s books, Cliff Garstang, so they’ve always been on my radar in terms of independent presses publishing quality authors—and also one of the places that champion short fiction, which are becoming more difficult to find. So yeah, I was definitely excited that Jeff Condran dug the collection and offered me a contract. The editing process has been really top notch, and I absolutely love how the books look physically. So much in the independent press world is out of your hands, so it’s been nice to feel secure with an experienced press, that they have my back.

Last year you published a novel, You’ll Be Fine, and when I look back on your career, you have a steady back and forth between novels and story collections. How do you compare the process of writing a novel and a story collection? When you start a novel, do you see it all the way through—or do you go back and forth between a novel and cycles of stories, depending on what’s calling you? What are the challenges and rewards unique to each of these endeavors?

Good question! I don’t always know, starting out, when I’m writing a short story and when I’m writing a novel. Usually I have an idea for the story, a point of view, and an arc of some kind, by the time I’m sit down to write. But sometimes I’m eight thousand words in, and I realize, “I either need to break this idea down into a smaller frame or I need to see where it goes and how I feel when I get to say, fifteen thousand words.” More than once, I’ve found myself in the no-writer’s land of the novella—in fact, the last story in this collection, “Scheherazade,” was something I envisioned as a ten or fifteen page short story but wound up being fifty pages. What I find is that I fall in love with some characters and I’m not ready to leave them yet. I know there’s something that I need to help them with, and I keep writing until I find it and leave them at that proverbial fork in the road to make that decision for themselves. So, no, the approach isn’t much different, but the results may vary.

As far as alternating back and forth between publishing novels and collections, I think the even ratio has been mostly happy accident, although I tend to have, like a lot of authors, a lot of coals in the fire. I usually work on a novel steadily for many years, but there are little spots in-between when I need a break or I’m stuck and a new idea catches my attention and I’ll wind up writing a story or two. More than once, surprisingly, that story has also turned into a novel, and I’ve found myself working on two novels at once! I love working on multiple projects, writing in different gears. I never feel trepidation when firing up the laptop, because I know if I encounter a roadblock in one place, there’s always a detour. For me, it’s just working a different corner of the puzzle for a while. Of course, the big payoff is always the novel, but the disappointments can also be greater too, after investing many years in a book.

That’s interesting—I do the same—but I have to be careful, because sometimes I find one project subconsciously bleeding into another—sometimes it’s a tone or vibe—and sometimes it’s something more concrete, like a scene or even a character. When I put one manuscript away, I have to box it up with a note of where it stands and where I envision it going. Have you ever had any spillover between the projects you’re juggling? And if so, has it led you down any unexpected paths?

I’m not careful of it at all, actually, because sometimes I discover I am working on the same thing, just with different approaches. For instance, The Summer She Was Under Water began as two projects, years apart, that I realized were actually one. I think this is more common than we realized, as I’m convinced that Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman had the same genesis—two stories that Erdrich combined.

I really enjoyed these stories. I found your characters very relatable—all of them slightly unmoored, lost to one degree or another—yet all still yearning and searching and trying somehow to connect. As you consider the world—and yourself—can you identify where these tides are coming from and what they’re speaking to in our current landscape?

I always thought when I got to college that I would major in psychology or pre-med—I’ve always been interested in the “why” or “how” of people, but I wound up majoring in English instead, unsurprisingly. I’ve always seen my writing, even as a teenager, as sort of field notes on humanity. Writing has always been my way of getting into other people’s heads and seeing how they deal with situations, trying to understand how other people work. How people connect when there’s so much noise in the way. It’s also because I often feel as if I have no idea what I’m doing in my own life and I need help! As a child, I remember mimicking my friends’ and cousins’ habits, their likes, because I had a bit of a “grass is always greener” mindset, that other kids were happier, more confident, knew something I didn’t. I suppose we all did that, though, right, as a way to relate, or imitation as flattery or something? I remember having a crush on Dickie, a pitcher on my little league team (who, you may notice, makes an appearance in this collection!). Anyway, because Dickie chewed his fingernails, I began to chew my fingernails. It took me years to stop chewing my fingernails after that.

As to the broader perspective, I mean, I feel like everyone’s been kind of lost since COVID-19. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, as many people are questioning structures (office work, mindless consumerism, capitalism) that may be outdated. We’re living in the climax of a story right now; the only scary thing is the denouement.

It’s interesting that you mention COVID. Has the pandemic found its way into your work? I feel it, crouching outside my storylines, but I don’t know when—or if—I’ll be able to address it directly. And perhaps I never will for fear of addressing something that will hopefully just be a memory someday. Have you wrestled with it yet—or is it on your radar?

I went in whole hog at first—the first draft of my novel-in-progress included a mysterious virus that had begun to encroach on the West Coast from Asia. I was having a great time with it, thinking I was writing the next bestselling thriller, until a year later, when suddenly it seemed stale, and I took it out and resigned myself to the fact I was again writing the usual literary fiction novel.

I often talk to my students about access points—how an author finds their way into a fictional world. For some it’s a situation, for others character or mood or setting. Do you have a go-to access? If so, can you return to one of the stories in this collection and tell us how it evolved from that moment of access?

This is a great question! Usually for me it’s an image, or a sentence. Often I just hear a voice, too—the cadence, rhythm, of the sentences. Other times, it’s just a riff off a seemingly innocuous thought. For “Eat a Peach,” I’d just visited the farmer’s market in Beverly Hills. I’d gotten a free sample of toffee from the Littlejohn Toffee Company and browsed the peaches. Then, as I was sitting in the food court area, I thought about how easy it would be to meet someone there for, say, a first date, but also how easy it would be to slip away, into the crowd, if you decided you wanted to bail. The rest of the story coalesced around that. The best stories (for me) take a moment from my own life, like a projector slide, that I reimagine the scene to life with different actors, wanting different things.

The book’s cover of surfers on a beach brings up a question about place. We know each other from your Baltimore days, but now you’re in California—and I wonder how this move has found its way into your work. Do you find yourself bringing an east-coast lens to your new life—while at the same time, looking back on your old home with a new perspective?

FYI, the cover for The Company of Strangers is one of my own photos of Carlsbad State Beach, near our house! We get to enjoy some of the most incredible sunsets on the Pacific here. Ironically, most of these stories predate my summer 2019 move to Southern California, except for “Scheherazade.” I always thought that, when I was in Baltimore and writing a lot of stories based there, that setting was important, but now that I’m in a strange land where everyone surfs and eats fish tacos, I find myself drawn to the same interior landscapes of characters that I was at home. I mean, the stories in Company are set in a variety of places—Nantucket, Los Angeles, Michigan, New Mexico, Arizona—but many of the characters are struggling with the same desire for connection. I’ve realized, for me, that setting provides great texture, like a corduroy shirt, or anchoring bass riff, like the one in “Billie Jean,” but the most important thing is still the person wearing the shirt or Michael Jackson’s voice singing the song.

One of the most important choices we bring to our stories is point of view. In your collection, you have first, second, and third person—along with direct address. When you set out to write a piece, is point of view pretty firmly established—or are there stories you finish then toy around with other points of view before finding the one that works best?

It’s rare that I will change a point of view of a story. I usually can’t even begin to write it if I don’t hear the “voice” in my head. That said, I don’t have a particular preference for any point of view and find them all useful—usually the type of story I’m writing will dictate the point of view, but it’s an innate decision, like changing a gear on a bicycle, not one with which I consciously grapple. I will say that if I use second person I tend to do so in much-shorter stories, because that point of view can be harder to sustain over time. The titular story actually started out as a genderless second-person story—I didn’t want the reader to assume that Casey was either a man or a woman, and it was interesting to see how my writing group read it when they thought the character was one gender or another. When it was accepted by Frigg, however, Ellen (the editor) persuaded me to reconsider. I guess the short answer to this question is that I do consider form often, how stories are told, but it’s baked into the story before I ever sit down to write it—the same way, I guess, someone writing a song on the piano is going to write in A-minor or whatever, without consciously debating with themselves about it, because that’s what they know that particular song needs.

What’s next?

I’m cleaning up the final draft (I hope!) of that aforementioned novel in progress, called All This Can Be True. Even though the COVID-19-inspired theme is no loner, the inciting incident still remains—I had this image in my head of a woman waking up to a phone call from the hospital telling her that her husband just woke up from a coma. After she hangs up, she turns to the person next to her in bed—another woman—in a panic. What happens if you’ve given up someone for dead, started on a new life, and then your old life comes calling for you? What do you owe that old life?

I remember reading Ann Clausen’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier many moons ago, in my twenties, even before I started writing and sending out work. It always stuck with me, and, subconsciously, I think I’ve always wanted to write my own version of that. I love that fiction is actually a dialog between writers and readers—that I’ve responded to Ann Clausen’s work in this way, and that some future someone will respond—hopefully—to my response. Like my characters in my stories, I’m always yearning to connect.

Curtis Smith’s most recent novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named an Indie Pick of the Year by Kirkus. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be released in September 2023.

New Voices: “Fishing” by Yiwei Chai

The first New Voices story of 2023 comes to us from Yiwei Chai. “Fishing” narrates the story of Nathelie’s return from the boonies, upon which she finds herself locked outside of her sister’s house. Across the short space of this story, as something sinister seems to lurk in the shadows, behind every closed door, it becomes clear that Nathelie’s state of mind is deteriorating. Watching it all unfold is Fish the cat. Read our first story of 2023 below!

There are pictures of their mother, too, and a few of their father as well. She turns them all face-down, so that the burglar will not be able to recognize the faces. The family portrait above the couch is the most difficult to hide. She has to put down the shovel again to prise it off the wall, kneeling into the couch with her arms outstretched to grip each side of the canvas.

She thought going to the boonies would help things, but after a month and a half she is back. Her sister only picks up after the third consecutive call.

“I’m outside your house,” she says.


“I rang the doorbell and everything. Are you trying to avoid me?”

“God, Nathelie. I’m not home. It’s Tuesday. Are you really there?”

“I can hear someone inside.”

She can hear noise in the background over the call, too. Voices, indistinguishable. There is a sudden absent sound, as though her sister has pulled the phone away from her mouth, and then brought it back.

“Just—okay. I get off work in two hours. Can you just, I don’t know, there’s a park at the end of the street, you know the one I’m talking about. Go hang out at the coffee stand there. I’ll meet you when I’m done.”

“Who’s in your house?” Nathelie asks.

“I don’t know. No one. You’re probably just hearing the cat.”

“It sounds like a person to me.”

There is silence, like her sister is about to say something, but changes her mind. She says, “Nathelie, there’s no one there, okay? Look, I have to go, I can’t keep talking on the phone while I’m at work. Just go to the park, okay? If you don’t want to do that, go home and I’ll drop by when I’m done.”

Her sister hangs up. Nathelie keeps the phone at her ear for a moment, just listening to the beeping tone. Then, she turns her attention back to the house. It hasn’t changed. The last time she was here, they got into a screaming match in the backyard. She can’t remember what it was about. Her sister’s husband just stood in the corner over the grill. She still doesn’t know what her sister sees in him. The daughter was there too. Nathelie left after the girl started crying.

The house is painted a pale grey color; two modest stories in a squat suburban style. In one of the ground floor windows, the curtain hasn’t been drawn shut all the way. Nathelie can see the living room through the gap; the family portrait is hanging over the faux-leather sofa. It looks like their mother’s house, only one of the daughters is missing. As far as she can tell, there is no one in the living room. Whoever it is has to be further back in the house. If her sister isn’t lying, then maybe it is a burglar.

To continue reading “Fishing” click here.