Colson Whitehead: ZZ Packer & Kevin Young

With the release of his new book, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death, Colson Whitehead did a comical Q&A for The New York Times. Read a quick snippet and add a new book to your reading list:

WWhitehead, Young, & Packerhat books are currently on your night stand?

I’ve been dipping into “Book of Hours,” by Kevin Young. I’m honored to have him as a friend, and grateful he’s such a gifted poet. His new book is a wrenching investigation of what it is to be a father — to lose one’s own, to raise a child in turn — and it’s superb, as usual.

What’s your favorite book to teach? 

One favorite is “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” by ZZ Packer, toggling between the stories “Brownies” and “The Ant of the Self,” depending on my mood. She’s nearing completion of her first novel, which is very exciting. And “Autobiography of Red,” by Anne Carson, even if it has no relation whatsoever to what the class is about. Especially if. I’d love to hip Red to some Joy Division records; I think he’d get a lot out of them. (Read more . . .)

Happy reading, y’all.

ZZ Packer Says Expect Failure

As I begin to consider sending a few of my short stories off to various journals, I found this bit of advice from ZZ Packer:

WORDSMITTEN: What advice would you give to unpublished short-fiction writers today?

ZZ PACKER: My first bit of advice would be to expect failure. I know that sounds awful, but plan for success and expect failure. I remember how surprised I was to hear other writer friends of mine just so dejected after getting rejection letters. It came as a complete surprise to me that they would be so upset. I was like, “Dude, these people could have Lorrie Moore writing for them, or Stuart Dybek or John Edgar Wideman, or all these other great writers, so why are you so surprised (and upset) that your stuff didn’t get taken?” I never expected anything to get taken, so when stories did start getting taken, I was always pleasantly surprised.

I also think you have to cultivate a healthy relationship with the rejection letter. I counted on getting rejection letters, so even though my goal was always first and foremost to write a good story and get it published, I know that more likely than not, you’ll get rejected. So what you have to do is set up a secondary and tertiary goals for those inevitable rejection letters. My secondary goal was always for the rejection letter to include written comments from the editor. That way, you increase the likelihood that the story will be read to the end, but most importantly, you get feedback from an impartial source who also happens to be an editor (or associate editor, or reader). That feedback is of vital importance, because they’re telling you what, in their estimation, went wrong.

1) So I always tell my students to write a cover letter that: Is appropriate to the magazine/journal, showing that you’ve actually read the publication and know what kind of fiction it’s likely to accept. (i.e., you should know that Zzyzzva is a journal of West Coast writing, so a story that takes place in Minnesota shows that you simply haven’t done your homework). And you should mention why you respect the publication. (If you don’t, don’t submit to it. It’s that simple).

2) Explains that you’re a young or fledgling writer, and because you respect the publication so much, you’d love it if, in the case that they don’t publish the story, they could give you any comments, suggestions or feedback to help your writing in general or that story in particular.

I’ve found that most editors are kind enough to comply. After all, they care about stories, they love stories, and they love it when people get it right. If they can help, and if it won’t take too much time out of their day, they’ll probably read to the end so they can scribble a few comments and suggestions. Editors have told me things that my fellow writers simply were too kind, or too untutored, to tell me.

(Read more . . .)

Happy reading, y’all.

New Stories from the South 2007 & 2008

Don’t get too accustomed to me posting something everyday. I have no business being on here right now. I’m supposed to be doing school stuff (and showering after my workout). The shame of it all, right? Anyway, I poked around on Tayari Jones’ Blog for a second and discovered that ZZ Packer has selected “twenty distinctive stories representing the great number of voices and narratives coming out of the South” for the annual New Stories From the South book. While I do read a diverse collection of books (sometimes), I am curious as to how many of these authors are African-American or non-White. Would somebody mind telling me? Please don’t question why this is important. I just want to know and am still interested in the book regardless of the response. In other words, please refrain from the “I can’t believe you . . .” emails and comments. Save it. But be sure to leave comments about the authors that I should know (or that are worthy of knowing) from this list! Here’s what I copied and pasted from the Table of Contents page:

Holly Goddard Jones, Theory of Realty
Pinckney Benedict, Bridge of Sighs
Amina Gautier, The Ease of Living
Kevin Moffett, First Marriage
Robert Drummond, The Unnecessary Man
Stephanie Soileau, So This Is Permanence
Clyde Edgerton, The Great Speckled Bird
Ron Rash, Back of Beyond
Merritt Tierce, Suck It
R.T. Smith, Wretch Like Me
Karen E. Bender, Candidate
David James Poissant, Lizard Man
Daniel Wallace, The Girls
Jim Tomlinson, First Husband, First Wife
Bret Anthony Johnston, Republican
Mary Miller, Leak
Charlie Smith, Albemarle
Jennifer Moses, Child of God
Stephanie Dickinson, Lucky Seven & Dalloway
Kevin Brockmeier
, Andrea Is Changing Her Name

Did you know that last year’s New Stories was edited by Edward P. Jones? Speaking of which, somebody questioned me about The Known World yesterday. I gave my usual “I read the first 120 pages, but . . .” response. It always surprises me to see how many people LOVE that book. It makes me wonder if I really gave it a full chance. I’ll try to read it again when I retire. In the meantime, I’ll continue to respect Jones for his short story works.

Since I can’t find much from the 2008 version of New Stories, I’ve decided to post Jones’ introduction from last year’s release:

When in the late afternoon of life, you go off onto a path never imagined—if raised by people who know the true value of things—you do not forget those who first gave bread and sustenance. Of the stories in my first collection, Lost in the City, one first appeared in Callaloo, and another in Ploughshares. After the other stories in City were written and collected with the first two to make a whole book, no one, except The Paris Review, thought enough of them to publish another one.

Being on this unexpected path has proven to be a busy thing, but we should never discard our good raising; doing so puts you in risk of becoming one of those creatures slithering through life without values. So when Kathy Pories, this series’ editor, asked if I would choose the stories for 2007, the busy me initially said no, but the other me remembered that no other annual anthology but New Stories from the South and the Pushcart Prize reprinted my story from The Paris Review. The story, “Marie,” was about a fairly uneducated old woman who, even after many decades of life in a city, still could not forget the Southern values of right and wrong she had inherited as a child and a young woman. I am here now because it meant something to have that story anthologized. I am here because I cannot forget Callaloo and Ploughshares and The Paris Review. They, like so many literary journals, say yes to us when others say no.

Hither and yon, they still debate whether Washington, D.C.—where I was born and came to know what is true and what is not so true—is a part of the South. It might well be that that debate is why I have never stood up straight and asserted that I was a bona fide son of the South. I’m in the room, but I’ll stand in the corner for the evening, if it’s all the same to you. And that is another reason I first said no to choosing the stories for this book. (Read more . . .)

More topics to post, so little time to do it. It’s Pudd’nhead Wilson and Othello reading time. Happy reading, ya’ll.

VONA & Cuernavaca, Mexico

ZZ PackerLast summer I had the opportunity to attend two fiction writing workshops, including Hurston/Wright in D.C. and VONA in San Diego. I met some amazing up and coming writers (some of which I still communicate with) and had a chance to receive feedback on my work from Z.Z. Packer and Mat Johnson.

This year, if you’re considering attending a writing workshop, I highly recommend VONA–and they’ve even extended their application deadline. If you’re a fiction writer like myself, this years workshop leaders include Chris Abani and Junot Diaz. Can you really beat that? Check this link for more information on VONA.

So what am I doing this summer besides reading and working on my fiction? I am heading to Cuernavaca, Mexico to attend a language institute. I have a language requirement that I must pass when I return and I haven’t taken a Spanish course in over 10 years. I’m assuming that three months alone in Mexico should do the trick. I doubt I’m wrong. Be sure to view the videoclip if you’re curious about any of this.

Happy reading, ya’ll.