by Odette Heideman
Readers of literary fiction have a compelling new anthology to read this fall. PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 features twelve authors, selected by judges Marie-Helene Bertino, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley. Each writer received the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers in this, its inaugural year. We’re pleased that Ruth Serven’s story, “A Message,” published in our Fall 2016 issue, was recognized.
Many of the stories in the collection are told by characters who break molds; they are outliers in their societies, and in reading their stories we understand something of what it means to endure in their worlds. These are unexpected tales that satisfy and perplex. In other words, they expand our narrative expectations.
Series editor Yuka Igarashi answered some questions for us about the collection, editorial work for literary journals, and the power of hearing stories read aloud.
EPIPHANY: Each and every one of the stories included in PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 is both riveting and surprising. Readers will have to remind themselves that the main criteria for a story’s nomination was that its author was previously unpublished. Were you surprised by the quality of submissions?
YUGA IGARASHI: It was our judges—Marie-Helene Bertino, Kelly Link, and Nina McConigley—who read every submission. They were very impressed by the quality of the stories. Nina McConigley said: “Every entry was a wonder, and such a pleasure to read.”
I read and worked on the twelve selected for the prize. I agree with you that they’re riveting and surprising. To me, one great thing about working on an anthology like this is that I not only discover new writers but also gain insight into how the judges read. I was inspired by what they chose. I felt they were teaching me about stories through their selections.
Submissions for the prize came from around the world. How did you publicize the contest? Was it through the PEN network, or by word-of-mouth?
PEN did a lot of outreach through their networks. We had a master list of journals to whom we sent out an initial call. Then we put notices on social media and on various sites and newsletters that list contests and submissions. I also wrote to editors of magazines I admire and asked them to check whether they’d published any debuts.
(Sometimes editors might not realize that a writer they publish has no previous fiction publications. If you’re a writer who is making a debut in a print or online journal, it’s a good idea to let your editor know and suggest that they submit to the prize!)
The list of journals—150 of them—that proffered work for consideration is impressive. Only twelve stories were selected. What was the most challenging aspect of the selection process?
The judges made the final selection and they reported that they agreed to them easily. Marie-Helene Bertino said: “There were very well-written stories that didn’t end up on the list, edged out by the magnitude of feeling and creativity contained in the final twelve.”
I do think reading 150 submissions is a commitment in itself and I’m grateful that these three extremely accomplished writers with a ton of their own projects agreed to serves as judges.
It’s what made sense to PEN and the Dau family, who generously supports the prize. I think it’s a good number. Personally, I prefer books that can be read in a sitting or two. We always intended this anthology to be that kind of book, rather than, say, a big fat reference book. I thought about how to order the stories for a pleasing beginning-to-end reading experience.
Judging this contest seems like it would be a singular pleasure. How did you choose your judges?
PEN chooses two of the judges and Catapult brings in one. We were thrilled that PEN got Kelly Link and Nina McConigley on board. Marie-Helene Bertino is editor-at-large at Catapult magazine, so was perfect as the Catapult-provided judge. What all three have in common is that they’re writers first and foremost, and that that they are practitioners of the short story form in particular.
If there is any sort of thread connecting these stories it might be that they bait us and then reel us in, seemingly without effort, which is a testament to the abilities of the authors. And all the while, readers are kept on the edges of their seats. They are intimate stories that are oddly exciting. What guidelines, if any, did you give your judges?
We didn’t give the judges any guidelines. They’ve all written prize-winning story collections of their own—some of my personal favorites—and all three work as teachers and editors, so they know what they’re doing. It’s more that they were the guides; they set the tone for the anthology.
Another quote from our judges: Kelly Link said, “When I sit down with a short story, I’m hoping to surprised, or unnerved, or waylaid.” I do think surprise is especially important to the short story form. Not a plot twist, necessarily—but a story has to offer something unexpected, a new perspective, a new approach. I agree with you that these stories do that effortlessly, and I also agree with you that pulling off that seeming effortlessness takes a lot of skill.
In your introduction, you write: “I think of this collection as a celebration of editors as much as it is of the new writers they published, because in different ways they are engaged in the same task, which is to gather together and put a frame around some small part of the world.” The anthology prefaces each story with a paragraph by the original publication’s editor describing his or her own selection process. It’s an original format for an anthology. How did this structure develop?
I wanted to include those intro paragraphs because I’m an editor and so I’m endlessly curious about how other editors work and think. I also thought it would be a useful for new writers to get a sense of why and how editors choose stories for publication and what they think about as they edit. It’s so great to see a note like the one from Emily Nemens of The Southern Review, for instance, which contextualizes Crystal Hana Kim’s “Solee”—this incredible, vivid story that takes place in rural South Korea—within that magazine’s tradition of publishing American Southern literature. Or to read, in your note, how Ruth Serven’s work as a journalist might inform her fiction, or to find out from Christina Thompsons’s note that Ben Shattuck’s story was originally chosen by Paul Harding when he guest-edited the Harvard Review and to then appreciate it against Harding’s own work.
Do you have a favorite story in the collection? Or is that like choosing amongst your children?
It is hard to choose a favorite. The truth is that my favorites kept changing as I worked on the book, and I think they will keep changing. There were ones that I took to right away—Katherine Magyarody’s “Goldhawk” and Grace Oluseyi’s “A Modern Marriage” have such amazing control and are such formal triumphs; Emily Chammah’s “Tell Me, Please” and Angela Ajayi’s “Galina” are so immediately transporting, and they both write with the kind of clarity that makes sentences leap off the page. There were stories that revealed their brilliance to me during the editing process. I asked Samuel Clare Knights a slew of questions about particular lines in “The Manual Alphabet”—it uses American Sign Language and the language is dense and mysterious at first—and as he answered I started to see the originality of his vision, how carefully he’d made every choice on the page.
There were stories that I appreciated even more after reading the editors’ notes about them (see above answer!), or from hearing from judges—Marie remarking on how exact and menacing Jim Cole’s “The Asphodel Meadow” is or Nina noting that Amber Caron’s “The Handler” taught her something, which made me appreciate how much intense sensory detail there is in that story.
Finally there are stories I already loved that I was more awed by after hearing them read aloud. LeVar Burton featured Laura Chow Reeve’s “1,000-Year-Old Ghosts” on his podcast; hearing him read it and talk about her story in relation to his own family was pretty amazing. Amy Sauber was one of our readers during our launch event for the anthology, and she made me see again how funny and pitch-perfect her story “State Facts for the New Age” is.
Can you give us a brief history of Catapult? Where do you figure in it?
Catapult launched September in 2015 as a new model for the future of independent publishing. We publish books, produce a daily online magazine, offer writing workshops, and host an open online platform where any writer can showcase their work and which also functions as an informal blog for the team. Our tagline is “launching remarkable writing,” and this simple mission guides everything we do. Because we have multiple arms, we cross-pollinate—our authors teach classes, our students publish essays in the magazine, we post conversations with our contributors on Community. We have Q&As from every one of the writers featured in the anthology! You can see them in our Catapult Extra section.
I came on as editor of the magazine a few months before we launched and became the series editor of the anthology when we started the project with PEN in 2016.
You served as an editor at Granta for five years. How did that come about?
I started as an intern in the London office and quickly got obsessed with working on the magazine and stayed until I was managing editor. It helped that Granta had kind of a dream team then. I’m really proud of the issues from that time, how fun and dynamic and international they were: I edited an issue focused on Japan; there was an issue on Pakistan, a particularly strong Best of Young British Novelists issue, a Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue. I learned everything I know now from the people I worked with then: John Freeman, Ellah Allfrey, Michael Salu, Patrick Ryan, Ollie Brock, Ted Hodgkinson, Saskia Vogel, Rachael Allen.
Besides your work at Catapult, you are also the editor-in-chief at Soft Skull Press. Will you pursue any of the PABDSS writers for book publication?
We’ll keep supporting PABDSS writers, yes. (I like the acronym.) To be honest, it’s more likely to be gradual—a building up of relationships over time rather than a direct line from the anthology to book publication. Soft Skull is just one platform, with a specific mission and aesthetic and history, but there are so many different platforms. It is, truly, about being open to opportunities and finding the right fit. I’ve been thrilled that agents have asked to be put in touch with PABDSS writers after reading the anthology. Even if they don’t end up representing the writers, it’s good to have those conversations. The Rumpus recently republished Katherine Magyarody’s “Goldhawk” from the anthology. Also, Ruth Serven sent a new story for us to consider for the Catapult magazine and we loved it and published it!
You have created a captivating new matrix for the literary world. We hope you plan to continue with a second edition of the PABDSS anthology next year. Yes?
Yes. We want this series to become a staple. We want it to be useful to emerging writers and to MFA programs. We also think of it as a way to celebrate literary journals that are doing the hard work of finding and publishing debut writers, and we hope it will encourage magazines to keep taking chances on unknowns writers. We also want it to be a reliably good yearly read.
Submissions are open for next year! Info here.