Good News: Sonora Review

In December of 2005, my friend Eric Ozawa was e-mailing back and forth* about the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU with his friend Charles Antin, who had just applied to the CWP. (Eric, at the time, was working on finishing his thesis in fiction.)

Charles described his application this way:

I think my writing samples were pretty good—that is, I tried to stay away from writing skinny-white-boy fiction, stuff about love and my ex-girlfriend who cheated on me, stuff that I’m sure they’re innundated with come January.

Eric replied:

I wish I had talked to you earlier. I could have quit my 2,000-page opus about how my girlfriend cheated on me. Now I have no choice but to finish it. […]

Usually there’s one or two people in a first-year workshop (and I’m basing this on no statistics whatsoever) who submit stories about couples getting into a fights at pizza places in Brooklyn which end with the main character (the misunderstood boyfriend or the wounded, poetic girlfriend) walking along the East River, watching the sun go down over Manhattan. Sometimes, as a flourish, the lights come on like twinkling stars.

There’s good work in the program too, but usually it doesn’t involve pizza. Which is a shame, I think.

Charles wrote back:

That sounds fun. If I get in, it’s pizza stories or bust. And they will all be in a Hemingway style. I ate the pizza and it was good and strong and pizza-like. Then we drank the grappa. And the lights came on like twinkling stars in the dark night.

Out of that exchange, Eric devised the following challenge for our writing group:

Is it possible to write a story that doesn’t suck involving a couple getting into a fight in a pizza parlor in Brooklyn?

Around the same time, my friend Jessica Anthony and I exchanged titles as a mutual story-writing challenge: the title she gave me was “I Used to Have Fun with Reggie Kopalski’s Rubber Mallet.” (The title I gave her might have been “Vikings vs. Penguins: Who Wins?,” but I’m not really sure. I think that, before coming up with these titles, a great deal of alcohol was consumed.)

For no good reason I can recall, I decided to combine these two challenges; and so I wrote a story about, perhaps unsurprisingly, heartbreak, a pizzeria in Brooklyn owned by a guy named Reggie Kopalski, and a rubber mallet. (The story is also about the logistics of sex on a leaky air mattress, but that has more to do with the heartbreak than the pizza.)

Eric says that Charles wasn’t accepted at NYU.** (I was one of the initial readers on the CWP admissions committee last year, but Charles’s writing sample wasn’t in the batch I was assigned—and, given the single degree of separation, I would have recused myself from reading his work if it had been.) But his writing career appears to be going quite well: His story “Fat Cooling” (which, from the title, seems like it might very well be about pizza) won Glimmer Train‘s Winter 2005/6 Very Short Fiction Award; “Dinner with a Matador” (which could, theoretically, also be about pizza) was a finalist for the Calvino Prize; and “The Landlord and Jeanne Hébuterne” (my guess, not about pizza—but you never know, maybe Jeanne and the landlord are breaking up in Brooklyn?) is in the Sin & Redemption issue of Ballyhoo Stories.

And I’m delighted to note that the most recent version (the sixth draft) of the story I wrote from Eric’s and Jessica’s challenges, which is now called “Reggie Kopalski’s Pizzeria,” was selected by the editors of Sonora Review as a finalist in the journal’s first annual Short-Short Story Contest, and will be published in issue #52 of the magazine, due out this summer.

* I should note that I think I might be slightly transgressing United States copyright law as it applies to correspondence here (the whole recipient owns the physical letter, but copyright on the contents is still held by the writer of the letter bit), as Eric said it was okay to excerpt his part of this exchange, but I have no idea how to get in touch with Charles. Charles, if you’re reading this, drop me a line!**

** Huzzah for the Internet, the Google, and the United States Postal Service; Charles wrote me a note to say that yes, it is indeed okay for me to reproduce these correspondence excerpts here (thanks, Charles, for assuaging my feelings of copyright-related guilt!). And he mentioned the very good news that a year later, he has been accepted to the Graduate Creative Writing Program at NYU, and will be starting there in the fall. Congratulations, Charles!

“The Month of Writing Dangerously”

A new story of mine called “The Month of Writing Dangerously” is in the fourth print edition of Opium Magazine, which has just been published. The story is a rollicking, continent-spanning adventure, packed to the gills with romance and pathos and political intrigue, love and war and hummingbird sausage; in other words, riffing on the idea of National Novel Writing Month and something George Saunders said in the ‘Times last year (“Might you try writing a novel in the future?” “I just did. It’s very innovative. It is only 25 pages long.”), I have efficiently crammed all the stuff—the meat and potatoes, the nuts and bolts, the vengeful Lithuanian manservants and unshaven Marxist waitresses—of a vast and sprawling novel into a mere twelve hundred and seventy-eight words. (Not unlike, perhaps, squeezing an entire intact cow into a sausage casing. Brilliant! Fantastique!)

Editors Todd Zuniga and Elizabeth Koch implore you to purchase the issue here; you can look at the excellent list of contributors here; and you can find out all about the fabulous launch party in New York City next Saturday here. [N.B. Links removed, at least for the time being; it looks like the Opium site is currently in the middle of an overhaul.]

I think this is the first time my name has ever come directly after Jack Handey’s in a list of contributors. Which is not to say that at some point he and I have been on a list of contributors separated by, say, Thomas Hardy, or Nathaniel Hawthorne, or Ernest Hemingway; I mean that, unless I’m completely forgetting something, this is the first time something I wrote has been published in the same thing as something he wrote. I have been on the same lineup as Kevin Sampsell (that guy rocks!), who also had a story in Homewrecker, but I definitely have not shared a bill with Stuart Dybek, Anthony Tognazzini, and Dawn Raffel, all of whom are awesome—and I look forward to discovering all kinds of unfamiliar-to-me-as-yet awesomeness in my contributor copy!

Hopkins and the Warhol

Accidental Warholia! If you live in Pittsburgh, or will be there this weekend, or live within a thousand miles of the city (especially if you’ve never seen the show before, or have only heard the songs in their recorded form on the completely stunning album, etc.), you should really go see Cynthia and the band performing Accidental Nostalgia, presented as part of the Andy Warhol Museum‘s Off the Wall 2007—two shows only at the New Hazlett Theater, Friday and Saturday nights. (Details on the Warhol site, here; on the New Hazlett site, here.)

The Colony of Wango

Last April, when I had a residency at the Ucross Foundation, one of the books in my studio was a copy of The Best American Short Stories 2005, which included eight very short stories by J. Robert Lennon under the title “Eight Pieces for the Left Hand,” which had originally run in Granta 85. The stories were awesome, and I knew I had to get a copy of Pieces for the Left Hand: 100 Anecdotes, which included these eight and (obviously) ninety-two other stories as well. But although Granta Books had brought out the collection in the UK in 2005, no press had published it yet in the United States. I tried to order a copy from Powell’s, but something went wonky at the warehouse; I could have tried amazon.co.uk, I know, but I got scared of currency conversion and the VAT; so in the end I asked my friend Olivia Birdsall (whose first book, Notes on a Near-Life Experience, is out now!), to please, please buy me a copy while she was over in London teaching last summer, which she graciously did.

Pieces for the Left Hand is excellent: the stories are all tightly woven narratives, like the stuff of one hundred darkly and dispassionately funny novels yanked from the archives of some upstate crime blotter or university news bulletin and ruthlessly compressed into the space of a couple pages (a sense of compression echoed in the plot of the story “Brevity,” the last in the book and, I think, my favorite). I wrote Lennon a letter asking if there were any plans for the book to come out in the US; he kindly replied to say that his agent unfortunately had not yet found an American publisher for it. (American publishers! Doesn’t it all too often seem like they’re either gigantic, inbred dinosaurs, blue-blooded and dim, or tiny little mammals facing down a new ice age, successfully foraging for berries at the moment but, in the long run, completely screwed?) But you should read the book if you can get your hands on a copy (The Bookery, an indie bookstore in Ithaca, New York, says that, as of this writing, they have a few copies in stock). And while you’re at it, you should read the blog Lennon and Rhian Ellis are writing these days, Ward Six; and you should watch Lennon’s brief instructional film “How I Write My Novels,” which is available on his Web site or on Google Video. (“Books! Everyone reads them; everyone loves them. And everyone would love to write them!”) I particularly like the credits at the end, thanking The Colony of Wango, among many other marvelous-sounding literary getaways for which I need to track down applications. What kind of new work might I get done, and new books might I discover, at the Binson/Pelham Arts Chateau? I must apply!