Other Voices is a semi-annual literary journal publishing some of the finest contemporary fiction available today. One of their stories was included in the Best American Short Stories of the Century anthology edited by John Updike, the publication has appeared in the Writerís Digest annual Top Fiction Markets list, and the journal receives about five hundred unsolicited manuscripts a month, of which only thirty-five are annually chosen. In April, The Summerset Review had the privilege of interviewing Gina Frangello, a staff member for nine years, now the Executive Editor.
We are happy to include here some brilliant anecdotes on reading, writing, publishing, and living in the world of the short story, and are grateful to Gina for sharing her experiences and views. At the bottom of the interview, several other staff members of Other Voices share some words with us as well, and for this we are also grateful to Steve Almond, Stacy Bierlein, JoAnne Ruvoli Gruba, Lois Hauselman, Mitchel Roberts McElya, and Barbara Shoup.
The Other Voices web site is at www.othervoicesmagazine.org.
The Summerset Review: So, who is Gina Frangello? How did you come to be Executive Editor of OV?
Gina Frangello: I came to Other Voices in 1994, during my first year as a grad student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where OV has had office space since 1991. I had never been an English major during my undergrad years - in fact, I was a practicing therapist when I went back to school to study creative writing. Iíd been writing fiction since grade school and had one story published in 1992, but I didnít know any other writers and Iíd only taken a couple of workshops - they were good ones, one with Lorrie Moore in Madison, and they inspired me.
The thing is that in 1993, during the three months after I got married, I wrote a novel. I didnít plan to write it and I had no idea what to do once it was written, but that pushed me to study literature and fiction writing formally, not only to improve my craft but primarily to find a writing community. I knew Other Voices was at UIC before I went, but Iíd never seen a copy. I became good friends with the two Assistant Editors at that time, Ruth Canji and Tina Peano, and they invited me to be on the Editorial Staff. Basically, to be a first reader.
Three years later, when Ruth and Tina finished their graduate degrees and got full-time teaching positions, they both needed to leave OV at once. They suggested to Lois Hauselman, who was a co-founder of the magazine in 1984 and the Executive Editor and who really didnít know me that well, that she consider me as their replacement. I still am not sure quite why Lois agreed, but she gave me a chance - I started with a co-Assistant Editor, but she left fairly soon too because she didnít have the time to devote, so since 1998, itís been Lois and me running the magazine together with the help of an amazingly diverse staff.
Lois was an invaluable mentor to me, and in turn she also appreciated the new perspective and enthusiasm I brought on board - we very quickly forged an exciting collaborative relationship that started taking OV in some new directions, as well as honing its existing strengths. That collaboration will continue to be a huge influence on OV even though Lois stepped down as Executive Editor following the release of OV 38 to devote more time to her own work as a writer and artist - sheíll still be involved.
What good things do you have to say about the state of contemporary fiction?
The only thing that isnít good is the state of the market financially, or I should say the state of the commercial publishing world. Independent publishing is thriving like never before in terms of the number of magazines and presses out there interested in publishing work that doesnít fall into the mainstream. Albeit there are limited markets for these venues because of how corporate the book industry has become, with big chains and media-driven book clubs basically dictating what people read, etc. Iím sure I donít have anything new to say about that - itís a common woe in the independent publishing community and I donít want to be a broken record.
What Iíll say is that I think thereís a lot more outstanding short fiction being written now than ever before, in part because of how accessible writing has become. Thatís the up side to the commercialization of the book industry - for example, Oprah probably has done more to get Americans to read women writers and writers of color - Iím talking literary fiction here - than any academic debate about what should be included in the canon could ever accomplish. Itís a weird situation because on the one hand, it makes it harder and harder to get a commercial book deal - if your book isnít going to sell like The Lovely Bones, you can be out of luck. But at the same time, weíre living in a climate where anybody can be a writer - itís not an elite privilege anymore.
Iím thinking of people like Jeffrey Renard Allen who Marie Hayes of StoryQuarterly referenced when she spoke to The Summerset Review - also Chicagoans like Joe Meno (Tender as Hellfire and When the Hula Girl Sings) and Don De Grazia (American Skin). These are hardcore working class guys - Don was a high school dropout who was writing about skinheads and violence and nobody in New York wanted to touch him. They were all terrified that he was so politically incorrect, which is pretty funny since his book is one of the most anti-racist Iíve ever read, and they couldnít get rid of him fast enough - they thought he was way too out there for the American public. Then his book got accepted in the UK and published here in the U.S. by Scribnerís only after it was a sensation in England, and guess what, Americans loved it. It got rave reviews and got optioned for a film - itís a classic story of how the corporate publishing world is constantly assuming this state of fragility and idiocy of the American reading public that simply isnít true.
But the thing is, there are all kinds of these success stories, and luckily there are also enough lit mags and independent presses out there now to help support these writers who are putting out risky or edgy or politically volatile material. If theyíre talented, I really do believe that most of the time, they do end up getting that ďbig break,Ē if thatís what theyíre after. But the most important thing is that not everyone needs or wants that kind of commercial break. The indie writing community is a world in and of itself for a lot of writers and readers.
Can you go into a little of the history of the journal, how it came to be, how it has grown and in what ways? Is the journal connected to the English Department of the University of Illinois at Chicago?
Like I said, Lois was a co-founder of the magazine in 1984. The powerhouse behind OV in those days was her mentor, Dolores Weinberg, who used to be part of StoryQuarterly, actually, and was a writer too. Dolores really willed OV into being - she ran it out of her house and partially with her own money. After she passed away in 1990, another editor, Sharon Fiffer, helped Lois bring OV to UIC because Sharon was in the PhD program and teaching there at the time, and OV needed somewhere to go. UIC has donated office space to us ever since. We arenít technically affiliated with them, and they donít support us financially, although of course the donation of office space and some mailing and copying privileges is actually a huge contribution.
Our reciprocal relationship with UICís English Department is much higher now than in the past. In part this is because of writers like Cris Mazza, who is a Creative Writing professor at UIC and is also on the OV Board, who have advocated for us, and in part itís because of a couple of grad students, like our new Assistant Editor JoAnne Ruvoli Gruba, who cross-over their involvement between the English Department and OV. Theyíve helped us a lot - weíve seen a lot of other journals that donít have a clear ďhome,Ē so to speak, really struggle or even fold, particularly in this kind of economic climate. And we do things like offer internships and present at seminars for the Program for Writers to try to be an asset to the Department too.
But the truth is, weíre really still quite independent. Itís not a situation of institutional affiliation. They donít pay any OV staff members a salary and they donít have a vote - or want one - about what we publish. Itís just a relationship of mutual respect and UICís genuine desire to offer some philanthropic aid to the nonprofit arts.
Our growth has been significant in a number of ways. Part of it is our reputation and relationships within an academic community - besides UIC, weíve had internship programs with Roosevelt University and Iím constantly on panels and presenting in workshops everywhere from Columbia College Chicago to Northwestern University to Dalkey Archive Press, to AWP conferences. That community is vital to supporting literary magazines - students, professors, other editors. If you got ten magazine editors together in a room to compare their subscription lists, thereíd be a lot of overlap of names from among this community. But that by no means is the only audience for lit mags. Things like our presence at book fairs, like Printerís Row here in Chicago, help us reach a wider audience. We also have more readings and events than we used to, all of which are free to the public, and we engage in as much marketing and advertising as our budget allows.
But the biggest thing when it comes to growth is, of course, the issue of distributors and subscribers. Thatís really what determines if a magazine can survive. We were hit hard when Fine Print went out of business, like a lot of magazines were. At that time, we werenít distributed by Ingram, and our circulation went down to something like 700 - which was really a moment of truth. This was the late 90ís, and we were either going to become a much smaller magazine circulating in a small community of friends, or we were going to push and grow and try to appeal to a new audience. So our efforts were multi-faceted, from courting Ingram and making sure we got picked up, to having more vigorous marketing and renewal campaigns to increase subscriptions. Holding contests, doing Direct Mailings - we did all that, and we came out the other end by about 1999, with our circulation up to 1,700. Weíre not a huge magazine - weíre never going to be the Paris Review - but weíre comfortable where we are now, and weíre financially in a position to tolerate and encourage further growth. A lot of this, I should add, was a matter of some good strokes of luck in 1999, where we kept winning awards...
Yes, Pam Houstonís story being included in the Best American Short Stories of the Century anthology must have been such a boost for the OV staff. What other honors has the publication experienced, and what has been the staff response in receiving these?
Oh, itís huge. I mean, Pamís story being selected by Updike - none of us could stop laughing. Donít get me wrong, heís brilliant, I assign his books in every class I ever teach, but letís put it this way... I would not have expected John Updike to be a Pam Houston fan. You know, women writers are always chiding him for his portrayals of women - but Pamís story, ďThe Best Girlfriend You Never Had,Ē was this totally honest chick story, and I mean that in the most wonderful sense of the word. It was, like all Pamís work, an incredibly genuine, moving, well-crafted, tough story about what it is to be female, as a daughter and a lover especially. It was about male-female friendship too, which isnít a terribly common theme in fiction. Itís just an amazing piece and we were thrilled enough when it was selected for both Pushcart and the regular Best American Short Stories 1999, edited by Amy Tan. When we found out about Best American Short Stories of the Century, we were over the moon.
The thing is, though, that honors like Best American Short Stories of the Century, come along once a century. Every year weíre getting Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and nominations from Pushcart editors and, even more importantly, writers who are calling and writing to tell us we had a major role in launching their careers. Just recently an editor from Dial Press told me that Other Voices is her favorite literary journal. Sheís young and just starting to be able to buy her own books instead of working under another editor, and sheís asked us to refer writers directly her way because she appreciates our tastes and the talent we find. Thatís a major thing for us because so many of our writers have books and donít know what to do with them or simply canít get editors to even read them or donít have agents yet, and now weíre able to recommend the most promising straight to Dial.
This is no guarantee of a book deal of course, but one of our writers, William Giraldi, whoís only in his 20ís, is in the process of negotiating with Dial as a result of a story this editor found in OV. I canít be more sincere in saying that as great as it is to be included in Best American Short Stories of the Century or on Writerís Digestís ďFiction 50Ē list or whatever, knowing that you played a role in spring-boarding a young, new writerís career is fifty times as great. It is, with no exaggeration, the most gratifying aspect of this kind of work, and I would venture to say that it is part of what every editor is in it for. Itís certainly not for the money!
Does OV sponsor or participate in any literary events held in Chicago or other area? Perhaps staff members have participated in fiction panel discussions in writersí workshops, or have held readings at local libraries, colleges, or bookstores?
I already mentioned some of the things we do in academic circles, like panels and book fairs, but yes, lots of other things. We have release parties at arts venues like The Guild Complex here in Chicago, and we just held a reading at Barbaraís Bookstore on Wells. Our most longstanding reading series is through the Park District of Highland Park, which is where Dolores Weinberg lived and where OV was founded. We do at least three readings per year for them and theyíre all taped for North Shore cable programming. Sometimes we do things like stage a production of one of our stories, and weíre also starting to go into some North Shore retirement homes to do readings. Oh, and in 2004, OV will be one of the sponsors of the AWP Conference held in Chicago, so look for a lot of programming in March of 2004, while the Conference is going on.
OV has been known to carry some cutting edge material in the fiction world. In your years at the publication, can you comment on any apparent trends in the way contemporary fiction is moving?
Itís true that OV has a certain affinity for some cutting edge writers. Weíve published, for example, a number of writers whose books are published by presses like FC2, which is obviously a risk-taking press, they were even the subject of a Congressional debate! - so yeah, we do like that element of fiction, and we like stylistic play, definitely, when itís sustained and not self-indulgent or pretentious.
Ideally there should be a genuine impetus for why the story is told in some non-traditional way, not just the writer proving to his or her workshop or writer friends how clever he or she is. But when somebody truly has a new way to say something, thatís a wonderful discovery.
I think more of our ďriskyĒ fiction, though, is not all that stylistically radical, itís more a matter of content. We donít shy away from stories that are grim or sexual or strange or even violent, again, if we feel that weíre genuinely hearing something relevant and exciting - in the sense that a story is exciting when it hasnít been told in this way, by this person, a hundred times before. When the controversial aspect of the story isnít just there to shock or prove some hipness quotient. It has to feel real, it has to resonate emotionally - Lois and I both believe that.
We are still a fairly traditional magazine - we believe there has to be a story, a plot if you will, and there has to be a character we care about, even if the character is not loveable in any conventional sense. We are not really about form for formís sake - a story thatís experimental in its form, even if itís genuinely smart, needs to move us or tell a story or have a character to latch onto, or itís going to do better at some other magazines than it will at OV. Thatís still a somewhat traditional notion of ďstoryĒ - there are a lot of sources out there now that donít believe in the necessity of plot or even character in that conventional sense. Thatís not new, thatís been going on in parts of the writing community at least since Modernism.
So personally, I donít think fiction writing is becoming any more radical stylistically than itís been for the past century. Itís more content thatís opening up. Like groups of people, whether people in wheelchairs or Asian lesbians or working class Latinos - I mean literally any group you can think of - are able to write very honestly, even graphically, and in new forms about what it is to be part of a non-dominant population, and of course, this being fiction weíre talking about, that kind of honesty is freeing for more than just autobiographical writers or writers dealing with issues of political marginalization.
This concept isnít new - look at Jean Rhysí Modernist writing about working class women or non-white women - but the utter frankness, the almost in-your-face guerilla tactics that writers across all boundaries have to play with now is something contemporary. The bottom line is that, whatever group a writer identifies with stylistically or politically, being able to pull off a genuinely innovative style without losing a relevant protagonist who can impact the reader is something editors love to find.
But OV is in no way heralding the demise of the traditional short story. That form is alive and well, and itís still what Other Voices is primarily known for.
Do you have a feel for what the biggest OV reader base is?
Would it be writers looking to get published in major literary publications? Readers who just enjoy great stories? Students of literary writing?
I donít think most magazines have students as their prime subscriber base. I could be wrong about that, but students are often broke and also there are usually literary magazines floating around any Creative Writing department that they can read or borrow at their leisure. I think the biggest base for OV is just readers who enjoy good contemporary fiction - who like to see writers taking risks, but also expect some level of accessibility and readability and enjoyment. Many of our subscribers have been loyal to us for at least ten years. Of course all literary magazines have writers and writing professors on their subscriber lists. But I donít think this constitutes the overwhelming majority - otherwise there couldnít be as many thriving literary magazines in the United States today as there are. The world of professional writers is fairly small. The list of readers who also write primarily for themselves, and who maybe publish a story now and then but are first and foremost avid, engaged, dedicated readers of fiction is much larger, I think. I think these subscribers subscribe for the love of it, not the hope of getting published.In Contributorsí Notes sections of popular literary publications, weíve read all too often that the author has had short stories published in various places and is now working on a novel. While this, of course, is a noble desire and one reason literary journals exist is to provide a means of helping novels become reality, isnít there something to be said simply for the short story, that short fiction is more than just the proverbial Ďstepping stone?í
I couldnít agree more. In fact, Iíve recently felt a bit demoralized by how little acceptance there is of this fact in the commercial publishing industry. Itís harder and harder to sell short story collections by authors who donít also have novels, and many agents wonít even consider collections by first-time writers. A Contributing Editor of OV, Stacy Bierlein, who is an incredibly talented writer whose work is, I believe, very marketable and also well-crafted and smart, is having a hell of a time getting an agent to take an interest in her sexy, fun, elegant collection, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, simply because she isnít a novelist. These agents are praising her work, but saying they want to see a novel. I think collections are being more and more relegated to the independent publishing world, which is great for us but a real loss for readers who get their material primarily from the commercial houses, and a very big loss for the many brilliant writers of short fiction.
That said, there are always wonderful exceptions - look at When the Messenger is Hot, which is a recent hit in the commercial publishing world. And three members of the OV Board, Pam Houston, Aimee Bender and Steve Almond, have made their careers primarily as short fiction writers. So itís important always to keep perspective and not to become extreme in oneís ire towards the New York publishing world. Itís important to remember that most of those editors and agents love literature too and they may seem ďbig businessĒ to those of us in the nonprofit world, but you know, theyíd probably be making more money as attorneys or stockbrokers too - theyíre usually in it for the love of words, just the way we are.
What does Gina Frangello like to see in a short story, in its structure, style, and content?
I think Iíve already addressed a lot of this, but Iíd add that both Lois and I are very prone towards stories that have a lot of scene vs. summary. We like dialogue, movement - things that take the reader outside the interior voice of a story for a moment, particularly if the story is in first person, so that we can see a broader picture and draw conclusions for ourselves. For example, if a story is told from the point of view of a wife who hates her husband, but the husband never actually has any dialogue in the story, if we hear about everything he does from her point of view, we have no choice but to believe her that heís a jerk. I find that kind of situation too easy and even manipulative in some cases. I donít like to feel the reader is being forced to see something in a certain light.
Some voice-driven stories are wholly successful - Joe Meno is a writer who has carried this off very well in a number of pieces - but by and large I like to be able to draw my own conclusions rather than feel like Iím reading someoneís diary. Likewise, in a third person story, I hate having the characters explained to me - so and so was the kind of person who . . . just have him act and speak and Iíll come to my own conclusion what kind of person he is.
Lois and I have rejected many stories where the writing was lovely and the plot was compelling, but where the summary or explanation was excessive and felt claustrophobic to us. We donít always have the same views on fiction and donít always love the same things - which is good and the way we like it - but this is one point on which we usually agree. In fact, I think itíd be fair to call this an OV sensibility that many of our staff members share.
Again, there are always exceptions to any rule. Fiction is a subjective business - you never know what will hit you in the gut and just compel you to publish it despite it flying in the face of everything you say you donít usually like.
Do you have a few favorite premises that always seem to pique your interest? Can you talk about one story recently read that you fell in love with, and what it was about the story that made you feel that way? Also, how did you come to find the story? A friendís recommendation? Luck?
Iím a real sucker for female coming of age stories. In saying that, I also acknowledge that there are a lot of really poorly-written, overly sentimental ones that I reject all the time. But weíve published a lot of mother-daughter stories, and a lot of stories about women in their twenties trying to cope with some ugly aspect of sexuality or family. As a matter of fact, weíve published a lot of these same kinds of stories about boys and young men, now that I think of it. Thereís nothing like a young, fucked-up protagonist, in some ways, because weíve all been there, itís very universal. The challenge is in doing it a new way. Weíve already had Catcher in the Rye and Bastard Out of Carolina, and we canít just keep publishing them over and over again.
Recently, some of my favorite stories have fallen into a couple of categories: young boys struggling with their individual morality in wartime situations, and young women traveling overseas alone and struggling with their sexuality. In the recent issue, we have two stories about boys in war - one by Josip Novakovich who is also interviewed in that issue. I love his work and I loved the story even though we already had one, ďThe Mystic Branislav,Ē by a new writer Michael Winter, which dealt with some very similar themes. We still couldnít resist, and so we ended up using the two stories to open and close the issue, which creates a kind of symmetry. Ha, now that Iíve said this aloud, I wonít be able to publish any more stories like that for awhile! Though of course, itís certainly a relevant topic right now.
I have to say that my favorite story of the past few issues is called ďThe Unpardonable Crime of Love,Ē by Jodi Daynard, and that itís about a woman whose older sisterís adult daughter dies. Itís the kind of story that Iíd usually fear would be sentimental and maudlin, but totally isnít - itís beautifully elliptical and irreverent in a creepy, sad way, and utterly devastating in the end. Some of our staff members say I have depressing taste. Itís true I have to struggle to get some lighter pieces into each issue. Lois always helps with that - she loves humor in fiction.
Weíve interviewed M.M.M. Hayes of StoryQuarterly in our last issue and asked her to name a few favorite literary publications. She mentioned many of the Ďbig guns.í (And, yes, she did include OV!) What about you? Would you have a few favorites and would any of them be smaller publications, perhaps underrated in your mind?
My favorite all-time literary magazine was probably the short-lived Fish Stories. They came out with four issues and then folded. They were based here in Chicago, and they garnered a Best American inclusion for a Tobias Wolf story. Personally, I respected their taste so much that I snagged up as many of their staff members as I could when they folded, and whenever somebody sends to the office with a cover letter mentioning a Fish Stories publication, I read their work myself instead of sending it to a first reader.
I really love the Missouri Review too. Iíve taught a lot of their stories. Water~Stone is a beautifully-produced journal that always captivates my attention and is intriguingly lesser-known while also attracting some highly acclaimed writers, like Li Young Li. The current issue of Pearl has three of my favorite emerging women writers in it - one is Lisa Glatt, so really anything sheís in. Of course I adore StoryQuarterly because they publish a lot of fiction writers whose work I already admire and their issues are fabulously fat and just pack an incredible amount of talent between the pages. I do especially love the all-fiction mags.
In Brendan Gillís Here at The New Yorker, he tells of the Fiction staff being bowled over when they received Salingerís ďA Perfect Day for BananafishĒ submission. Iím sure OV has some Ďstoriesí of their own like this. Can you share some examples and describe the reactions you saw?
I think the most striking example comes from a contest we held during the summer of 1998. I was living in Amsterdam at the time, so Lois was sending all our entries overseas for me to read. They were all blind submissions - only our intern had the cover pages with the authorsí names - so Lois and I didnít know who we were reading. It was permissible for a writer to submit more than once as long as he or she paid separate entry fees.
Anyway, out of some 1,500 submissions, we ended up choosing ten stories to pass along to our final judge, Karen Karbo. Understand, we werenít using our larger Editorial Staff - Lois and I were reading every submission ourselves. And out of those ten stories, it ended up that three were by the same writer, Kate Small. The stories were so different from one another that, since we still hadnít seen the cover letters, we didnít suspect a thing. We sent them in - still without a name - along with the other seven stories, and Karen ended up choosing one of Kateís stories as the winner. It was about an African American housekeeper whose employer was dying of cancer, and it was the most lyrical, brilliantly-written story I have probably ever read by anyone who wasnít already absurdly famous. One of her other stories was about a bunch of street kids with Hepatitis C, and it was really harsh and hip and not at all poetic, but equally disturbing and gorgeous in its way.
Basically, the moment of surprise when Lois, Karen and I realized that three stories out of ten were all written by this same unknown writer, and that sheíd won our $1,000 prize, was really incredible. We were so thrilled to have ďdiscoveredĒ her - when we called her, the first thing she said about her winning story was ďMy workshop hated that story.Ē It was just very exciting. That same year, she went on to win something like five other contests, but about a year later she wrote us to say how much winning our contest still meant to her and how it had been the most important experience of her writing career because it happened at a time when nobody else believed in her work.
I think what stood out so much about that experience is that it really validated the fact that if youíre truly good, your work will rise above the masses. Lois and I were reading blind - and even if we hadnít been, we didnít know Kate or her name - yet of some 1,500 pieces, every piece she submitted ended up in the final ten, and then the judge, a frequent New York Times book reviewer, agreed completely with our take on her talent, and then in the following year four other magazines felt the same way.
Sometimes in this business, one starts to wonder what the standards really are, if itís all just about the Editorís subjective tastes, what right we have to impose those tastes, etc. The experience with Kate brought home that there really is just raw talent, and that it is our privilege as editors to seek it and find it and bring it to the world.
In addition to our interview with Gina, The Summerset Review has also contacted some of the staff editors of Other Voices and asked them the following question: Aside from OV stories that have received any additional recognition, there must have been pieces that were favorites of yours, not having gotten the visibility they deserved. Would you be able to cite one memorable story having appeared in OV over the years, and provide an excerpt of it, as well as short commentary on what you thought most inspiring about the piece? This would serve to give a little extra honor to the author of the story, and allow readers and writers to get more of a feel for what OV likes.
Steve Almond writes about ďEngagement,Ē by Ellen Litman, in OV 36: The best task that a magazine like Other Voices can perform is to discover and foster young writers. And that's what they've done with Ellen. Her story just knocked me out. The language is startlingly original, beautiful, imbued with a sense of loss and urgent hope. She writes unlike anyone I've ever read, and she offers a perspective (that of a female Russian immigrant to America) that I've never encountered before. I'm certain she will soon have a book in the world, more than one, and Other Voices will have proved prescient, once again, in its apprehension of serious talent. An excerpt:
We still got annoyed at our boyfriends occasionally. For being too negative and not ambitious enough, for sulking and being selfish. But somehow those little annoyances didnít seem very important anymore. We were learning to work through problems the way Americans did. We studied Mars and Venus books about relationships and tried not to nag our boyfriends too much. They bought us little necklaces from K-Mart and took us to Lake Erie. Vadik found a better-paying job to support his new family. Kiril quit McDonalds and announced he was going to study computers. It was called life; it was called compromise. One day, we knew, we might actually get married. No American engagement rings, no long and elaborate planning. One day we might just do it.
Marisha was smiling at us, serene and unaware. We promised her to keep in touch. For the first time we were ahead of Marisha; for the first time we understood something she hasnít discovered yet. The evening air was fragrant, and dense, and filled with uncertainty. We walked away from ď61C,Ē dissolving in the Squirrel Hill flow: a couple with a rottweiler; a man in a ďGo SteelersĒ T-shirt; two Orthodox teenagers, happy and awkward, holding hands.
Stacy Bierlein writes about "A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That," by Lisa Glatt, in OV 35: In every issue, there have been stories that really grab at me, that capture my attention as well as my imagination. These are the most rewarding moments for the staff of Other Voices - seeing these powerful stories in print, knowing we will return to them again and again. Lisa Glatt's story is one that I feel particularly drawn to. Glatt gets to the deep emotional truth of the main character. She writes with a raw and vivid honesty - the sort of deep truth I believe one is more likely to find in fiction than anywhere else. An excerpt:
On a Saturday morning in early December you are deciding what it is that you want. You want your mother healthy, you want a husband or at least a boyfriend or at least a date for Friday night. Right now though, you're in bed with one more man you barely know. He's sleeping, and you're wondering how to get out of bed without waking him. The two of you are on your sides, his soft crotch up against you. You're facing the wall, and his arms are wrapped around your body, his fingers intertwined, locked under your breasts. It feels good and suffocating at once, the position you are in, and you think that if this man were your husband he would know when you want him like this, bundled around you, and when you don't. But he's not, and he doesn't.
JoAnne Ruvoli Gruba writes: Your question was more difficult than I thought it would be. There are so many stories that I really adore. But O.K., if forced, I have one that typifies what I like about many stories in OV, although I have to also add that I think the magazine does a great job of offering very diverse stories in every issue.
Dana Mollin's "An Aria" in OV 30: The narrator is a blind woman who realizes that perhaps she has compromised her dreams of being a classical composer. It is the kind of story that takes many risks. It takes on the challenges of writing from the point of view of a narrator who is blind. How does that limit the choices of the writer? How does that look in language? What does it mean in the world? It also tackles writing about music which is elusive and abstract. Again, how does music translate into language? And it takes on the idea of wanting to be an artist against the odds. It questions the limits of this character's world - which are very specific and personal - yet opens the question to the readers' larger experience. Within all these layers, Dana Mollin also tells a dangerous, heartbreaking story. There's much at stake for the character.
If I wanted to spoil the ending for you, I'd excerpt the last two paragraphs, but here is one paragraph from the first page:
There is no bitterness. I hear and feel all I need to see. There is such a fuss made over sight; certainly there can be no advantage to seeing the homeless man in addition to smelling his tangy odor. The human voice betrays emotion quite readily; the sighted do not appreciate this because the visual is all encompassing. The voice is naked. It is ripe for
interpretation. I can hear the voice of the homeless man on the corner and understand his desperation.
I would add that I think we have great interviews as well. And another thing I adore is the contributor's comments. When I read a great story I'm always a little disappointed when it is over, so it is an added bonus after reading an OV story to get that little extra from the writer.
Lois Hauselman, who has been at OV from the beginning with Dolores Weinberg, writes: My task is the hardest because I've read and published the most stories - twenty years worth! So... I choose Karen Karbo's story from Issue 6/7 because it's truly a masterful short story that stands the test of time, and because it resonates with a time in the life of OV that so captivated all of us when we discovered it. We were so impressed, we nominated her story "Death By Browsing" which went on to win the CLMP Award for Writers Under Thirty and we were all invited to New York to receive our awards and celebrate Karen's and OV's success.
So what captivated us? "Death by Browsing" is hilarious. A truly humorous literary story - with the humor emanating from deep inside, wonderfully drawn, believable characters - something very hard to come by, and Karen Karbo succeeded on every level. Just as you're marveling at Karbo's ability to write as if she's truly a Russian ex-pat, and laughing your head off, just like that she breaks your heart a little. It's a very delicate balance that few writers can maintain with authority, and when you come upon a story written with a Russian 'accent' that makes you laugh and cry and marvel at the author's ability to sustain that balance, you know you've got a winner. This excerpt is from the beginning of the story when she writes to her best friend back in Russia from where she and her husband, Yuz, had emigrated four months earlier:
Greetings, Cookie! I have some horrible sad news. First, I could not find
that black and white Norma Kamali T-shirt dress you asked me about in your
last letter. Also, dear Yuz died three weeks ago Sunday.
Los Angeles is perfect except the air and it caused him to suffer a heart attack while shopping on Wilshire Boulevard. The man on the News that morning had said 'Beware. Third Stage smog alert. Breathe only when necessary.' But they always say that, and you have to live, right? I did not realize it was eight miles to walk to Bullock's Half-Year Sale, and who could have known the bad state of Yuz's heart? The emergency ward doctors felt that decades of vodka tormenting his system were to blame.
It is no secret that my love for Yuz expired long ago, but he was my husband, and the people at the University allowed me time away to heal. It was marvelous. Everyday I spent visiting my friend Cricket, darling salesgirl of Trendsetter Sportswear at fancy downtown department store. You would love her, Lidichka! She is Miss Au Courante, straight from Vogue. With her tiny waist and saucy hairstyle she reminds me of you, only she is dark-eyed like an Armenian. She admires greatly my style of dressing and often asks my opinon on how to put together A Look. She says I have natural gifts for fashion and should be in Retail instead of teaching Russian to college students.
I would appreciate if you kept the situation of Yuz to yourself, as all those nasty black market girls, Irina especially, who tries to pass her cheap Polish lipstick off for Revlon, will be delighted to hear of my misfortune. All my love, Bella
Bob (Mitchel Roberts McElya - known on the rejections as MRM) writes: Over the years, I've sent on no more than 10% of the stories that come to me, and, though I'd be glad to claim mentorship of any of the OV stories, I've looked over the offerings and can't definitely say ďThis one lives because of me.Ē Sorry. I can, however, tell you some of the things that make me send a story to another editor:
1. It must have an arc - go from one point to another in a clear way. Usually this is a journey that the protagonist helps the reader make.
2. It must not be a predictable arc. Surprises are rare, and valuable.
3. It helps to take me to a different place. The ethos, the specific detail of a time, a culture, a place are all interesting to me.
4. It must make something happen. The action can be overt, or it can be a discovery of character that illuminates the story. An extension of this is that the story must not stop, but end.
5. It helps if I can like at least something about the character.
Those things the writer's workshops and magazines tell you about spelling and punctuation and honoring the magazine's requirements and cover letters and SASE's and proofreading and so on are things I notice - and they may set my jaw on edge as I go through if they're terrible, but they don't, after all, stop a fine story from getting through (though, honestly, I can't think of more than one or two that have worked in spite of those problems).
It has been a joy to be a small part of this! I hope to be doing it for another twenty years.
Barbara Shoup writes: I met Michelle Brooks recently, while teaching a writing workshop in Ann Arbor. "Ways of Pulling a Person Out of the Water" (OV 26) was the first of her stories she ever saw in print, she told me. Sheíd broken her toe that night, and sheíd gone to a bookstore hoping it would make her forget about the painÖ and there was Other Voices with her story in it! She limped over to look at it, she remembers. She even saw someone pick up the magazine and leaf through it. "I wanted to yell, ĎIím in that!í" she said.
I remember loving the story, which begins:
If you asked Elana, and you wouldnít because you donít know her yet, this is how she would describe herself: sheís money before you spend it, all possibility and no commitment. Sheís working hard not to reveal anything. Right now, sheís Pledging her table until it gleams. This activity has been predicated by a man, of course, one Greg Rivers, whom she met in the usual way, through a co-worker. She wants everything to be perfect, because thatís how she is.
Cleaning her apartment in preparation for Gregís arrival, Elana takes care to hide "the special toothbrush that she uses to throw up with." Thatís as close as Brooks comes to telling you that sheís bulimic, yet Elanaís illness is present in every act of self-destructiveness and unhealthy control that carry her through to the end of the story when you realize sheís nowhere near getting better. After unpleasant sex with Greg who finally appeared drunk, too late for dinner, she remakes the bed "Ö focusing all her concentration on getting the corners completely tucked in. When her hair spills over her face, the dark roots are visible in the dim light."
"Ways of Pulling a Person Out of the Water" is a lesson in the use of subtle detail, in trusting the reader to make meaning of jagged bits of objects, memories, conversations, and in proving the truth of Poeís dictum: "A short story should be written for the sake of the last sentence."
Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003