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.
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!