The Long Road of Short Story Collections: One Writer's Success Story
Josh Rolnick’s debut collection, “Pulp and Paper,” won the 2011 John Simmons Short Fiction Award, selected by Yiyun Li. His short stories have also won the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and the Florida Review Editor’s Choice Prize. They have been published in Harvard Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, and Gulf Coast, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best New American Voices. Josh holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and an MA in Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. He is working on a novel.
In a journalism and writing career spanning two decades, he served as a fiction editor at the Iowa Review, creative writing teacher at the University of Iowa, an editor at Stanford Social Innovation Review and Moment magazine, a newsman for the Associated Press, and a reporter for Congressional Quarterly and the News Tribune of Woodbridge, N.J. He currently serves as fiction editor of the literary journal Unstuck, and publisher of Sh’ma, a journal of Jewish ideas.
Interview by Rachel Worrall
As I was reading the stories in Pulp and Paper I was reminded of Joyce’s Dubliners - in the way each story is set in a particular place and how each character is taken on a journey and at some point they come to a small epiphany, often but not always to do with their own failure; I say small epiphany because the change that takes place is usually very subtle.
Wow, being compared to Joyce’s Dubliners is the compliment for a short story writer. There was a time when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that I was regarded as the writer who ended all of his stories with a hug - which I think was meant as a compliment. I have always been interested in writing about the ways in which we take care of one another, particularly when we are faced with real challenges. I think this is what my Iowa peers were getting at.
The trick though is, as a writer, is if you go there, you risk finding yourself writing melodrama, so the challenge for me was: Can I write about these things in a way that’s meaningful without being overly sentimental? I had to wean myself away from some of my earlier inclinations. At the Workshop there was something I was shooting for that was worthwhile, but I had to work at it more to get it to the point where it felt both emotionally accessible and true.
I’ve always been one of those writers whose stories tend to emerge more powerfully when they come from a specific place. I don’t believe you necessarily have to write what you know - you can learn what you need to know about your characters - but one thing that does ring true for me is that if you know a place really well, stories can emerge directly from setting.
Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning collection Good Scent From a Strange Mountain, talks about the need to leave a place so that you can remember the details of it from your subconscious and your imagination. New York and New Jersey are places where I spent a lot of time growing up and have long-since left – when I’m writing about them, I’m remembering as opposed to observing, and this remembering opens me up to what Butler refers to as “dream-storming.” And that’s a great place to be when writing fiction.
The majority of the stories in Pulp and Paper are written from a male point of view. Was this by design?
It’s funny. I have often been told there’s a feminine quality to my writing. When I start writing a story I don’t usually come at it with a preconceived idea about what it’s going to be about or even who are the main characters. It’s true there are many male points of view in Pulp and Paper but I really set out to flesh out the characters that spoke to me, whether male or female.
These are not autobiographical stories. Sure, there are parts that are autobiographical. “Mainlanders,” for instance, is set in a fictionalized version of Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where I spent my summers growing up. In “Mainlanders,” two island boys are trying to score with two city girls – tourists.
It was this conflict - of a tourist versus a local at that age - that attracted me to that story. So, no, I’m not drawn in because of the gender of a character, per se, I’m drawn to their voice; I’m drawn to situation.
Tell me about rejection.
I’ve actually written about this recently for The Millions. I have more than 200 rejections in my office filing cabinet, accumulated over a dozen years of sending out short stories. I believe it’s important to embrace those rejections: Each letter represents an opportunity you gave to your stories to live in the minds of readers. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Which is why I think it’s helpful to develop coping strategies. For instance, when I received my 200th rejection, I immediately subscribed to that journal – it happened to be One Story – so that I could own it, instead of letting it own me. Now, each month when the journal arrives in my mailbox, instead of feeling dejected and getting down on myself, I’m reminded of my perseverance. My absolute favorite quote about writing is from Richard Bach: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”
Look, it’s very hard to write a story that truly lasts. The fact is most writers I know write to reach people, to move them in some small way. But you can’t sit down and say ‘Today I’m going to write a story that reaches people.’ You just have to be with your characters in a way that lets something powerful emerge over time.
Pulp and Paper took me a long time to write. There’s a story in the collection that took me 13 years. I was writing more quickly towards the end but even so... .
…Most people don’t read short stories - I didn’t until I started writing them. At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I can’t tell you how many agents came through and not one was interested in short stories, only novels. Inevitably, every agent I met with would come to a point in the conversation when they’d say, “So, I like your stories … are you writing a novel?” This got pretty difficult to hear over time. In one meeting, out of desperation, I actually made up a novel on the spot, and within five minutes the agent was all-but ready to sign me.
If no one reads them, how and why did you get into writing short stories?
I was working at the Associated Press in New Jersey when my sister gave me a copy of Best American Short Stories - 1997. I’d gotten into journalism because I liked writing creatively, but somehow, the further I’d advanced in my career, the less creative writing I did. It was all just the facts, most important to least important, inverted pyramid style.
I’d always wanted to try my hand at fiction, but I was thoroughly daunted by the prospect of a novel. How does one sit down and write a 400 page opus? When my sister gave me that book, it was like a light bulb went off. I was like: Oh … maybe I can write short stories! I actually, though, made the classic short-story writers mistake. I assumed that writing stories wouldn’t be as daunting – because they are short. The hard truth I’ve learned over 13 years writing stories is that stories are an unforgiving, uniquely demanding form.
What has the criticism of the book been like?
To be honest, I could not be happier. The book has been widely reviewed in a number of different publications, from the Boston Globe to Zyzzyva to PANK magazine. It received a starred review from Kirkus and a strong review from Publisher’s Weekly. It’s been reviewed or excerpted by several wonderful blogs, including the Rumpus, Nervous Breakdown, and the Seattle Post Intelligencer. The reviews have been incredibly positive, commenting on everything from use of language and setting to character psychology and theme. I recently finished an extended book tour, reading at independent bookstores from Kepler’s in Menlo Park, CA, to Prairie Lights in Iowa City, IA, to Politics & Prose in Washington, DC. All told, I read for some 600 people, many of whom came up afterwards to tell me what the book has meant to them. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have the opportunity to connect with readers personally in this way.
I have been told by a few readers that when they finish the stories, they want to know what happens next, that they are in a sense unsatisfied. This could be considered a flaw. What I hope, ultimately, is that more readers find there’s a natural winding down; that you might not know what’s going to happen next in a given character’s life, but you really don’t need to. Each story has a natural beginning, middle, and end, a complete narrative arc.
The book has a key geographical structure. How did you come up with this?
I wasn’t really thinking about writing a collection when I started – I was focused on writing and publishing individual stories -- but agents kept asking me “How do your stories hold together?” And I would say “Well thematically they’re about loss, recovery, and redemption." But no one was interested in a book of thematically-linked stories.
I had heard about a collection that was “linked” because each story had a character with a pet in it, so I started thinking: could Tubby have a dog? Could Finch have a parakeet? In the end I stumbled accidentally upon the New Jersey/New York geographical structure. (I did not write the stories with that structure in mind.) I was desperately thinking about how the collection was going to hold together when I was driving from New Jersey to New York to meet my wife for a Broadway show. In the middle of the Holland Tunnel, as I was passing the mosaic that marks the New Jersey/New York boundary, it hit me: I have four stories set in New Jersey, three set in New York, and one set on the Allegheny Plateau in Western Pennsylvania.
By the time I’d gotten through the tunnel, I’d resolved to move the Pennsylvania story to New York so I had four and four, a parallel structure. “Pulp and Paper,” the Pennsylvania story, was really more about the fictional town I created – “Slab,” which is a composite of farm belt, rust belt, and Bible belt – than it was about Pennsylvania. I recognized that I could move it to New York without losing any authenticity.
What kept you going during those unpublished years?
Like the Richard Bach quote says, sometimes the toughest thing to do is to keep at it. Part of what helped was meeting and getting to know a community of writers. I recently went back to Iowa City for the 75th anniversary of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There were countless prize-winning authors speaking that weekend, and they were terrific. Even more inspiring were the many people I met who are still writing after many, many years, even though they have not yet been published. They still consider themselves writers, and still feel a part of the larger community of writers, even though they have not been tapped, so to speak. That is to say, you can still be a writer, even if you never publish a thing.
In addition to discipline and stick-to-itiveness, every writer needs a little bit of luck. I’m very fortunate to effectively have been picked off the slush pile to win the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. And it happened just as I was getting to the point where I was starting to feel like I was outgrowing the stories. I guess timing is everything.
What’s your writing process?
Revision is a big part of it. A friend of mine recently invited me to bring in my first and also my final drafts of a story to a class on revision at University of Akron. I found what I thought was a first draft of “Funnyboy” and then I found a whole series of earlier drafts I’d completely forgotten about. This reminded me how painful and how rewarding and how difficult the process of writing the stories was. Now of course they’re all wrapped up in a bow in a spiffy-looking collection and everyone wants to talk to me about them and you forget the sweat that went into them.
One of the hardest questions I faced on my recent book tour is: What are you working on next? I spent 13 years writing this collection, pouring everything I had into it, and I’m quite literally turning again to the blank page. I really don’t know what’s next, and so I remind myself that it may be a cliché, but the work really has to be its own reward. It has value, in and of itself. Sure, you want to be published. But you’d do the work even if you never were. Every writer probably thinks they’ll eventually get to a certain place and feel satisfied. But I doubt you ever do. There’s always a next story, a next book, a next prize. And the fact that we are never satisfied is I’m sure part of what makes us good writers.
At one point I got myself a time clock and tried to keep track of my writing hours. I literally clocked in each morning, as if I were working at a factory. I wanted to get to a point where I had a daily writing habit. To this day I don’t have a page or a word limit; I have a time limit. Even if I’m just staring at the monitor thinking I consider it part of the process. If I have absolutely nothing in mind, I type: ‘This is the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius.’ For some strange reason, that is often enough to get me going again.
I’ve always tried to do other things in my life outside of writing, as well, to have some sense of balance. I’m publisher of a progressive Jewish journal called Sh’ma (‘To Hear’); I’m also the editor of a new literary annual based in Austin, Texas, called Unstuck – As part of my work for Unstuck, I read stories that come in unsolicited, which keeps me connected to something important and vital in the fiction world.
I just read a great quote from Jeffrey Eugenides in the New York Times Magazine. He says: “At a certain point, while you’re failing miserably, you do find a kind of engine in the book that allows you to move forward with it. It’s a feeling I get when I understand that the thing has begun to lift off.” And he’s right -- you have to keep working at the story until you get that lift-off. No one can predict how many pages you need to write to get to that point. In my experience it’s many, many pages.
Any comments on the publishing process for short stories?
Everyone says you should read the literary journals before you send in your work. I did not follow that rule; I just don’t think it’s practical given the importance of sending out submissions simultaneously, but I always at the very least read their guidelines (the Short Story Writers’ Market was a great resource for this).
When I started sending out stories it was probably twelve years ago and I was in the Johns Hopkins part-time writing program in Washington DC working as an editor. I was advised early on to aim high when sending out stories. So I sent to Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker. Early on I got a short story selected by a small, local journal in Washington DC and I went to my writing teacher, Harvey Grossinger (who is still one of my most trusted mentors) and he said “I think if you keep working on the story you could get it published at a better venue.”
So I did the unthinkable. I called the journal and pulled the story. I told them it wasn’t finished yet. Then I worked on the story for another year and sent it out again, and it won The Arts and Letters Fiction Prize. This prize included $1,000 and a trip to Milledgeville, Georgia (Flannery O’Connor’s hometown) for a reading with the contest judge, Robert Olen Butler. It was an important lesson. It’s very hard to write a good short story. Make sure your best work really works for your career as a writer.
As I mentioned, I also made it a policy to send simultaneous submissions. I think it’s only fair. If you’re starting as an unknown you have an obligation to your work to send out as many submissions as makes sense. I would make a list of top tier, second tier and third tier journals and send out ten to fifteen stories in a batch, starting with the top. (It’s very important if you do this to let the editors know in a cover letter that the story is a simultaneous submission, and, should you place a story, get back to the editors immediately to let them know the story has been placed.)
I was very lucky that editors like C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic wrote me back encouraging letters about several early stories. This was oxygen for me. They may have been rejections, but they gave me a sense that I was at the very least on the right track, and that I should keep going.
So I kept working, and every couple of years I would send a new story out. Eventually, I’d placed six stories in literary journals, two of which won national prizes. Along the way, I also got more than 200 rejections, but when you’re getting even just a little positive encouragement you can keep going. And when you get no response, well, that tells you something, too – most likely that a story is missing the mark.
Which literary magazines do you read?
For years I’ve read The New Yorker and I still cut and save those short stories. They are in many ways the standard-bearers for short stories. They publish the best short story writers in the world pretty consistently, from Alice Munro to T.C. Boyle to Tobias Wolff. I think it’s important to know the kind of work they’re publishing.
Tell us about your critical readers.
My wife is my first and best reader. I’m very lucky as she’s a businessperson with no stake (beyond me) in the world of literature – and since I’m not writing only for other writers, she is in many ways my ideal reader. Hers is an important perspective for me - she says things that I need to hear. She’s extremely direct and very honest, with a good way of delivering tough messages, when necessary, about my work. I also exchange work with friends from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; every writer needs trusted readers.
How do you know a story is ready to send out? The critical measure is: ‘Is this story as good as you can make it?’ When you’ve done the best you can, it’s time send it to your readers. Some of the best ideas for revision can come from your readers. A friend of mine last February gave me a critical insight into fixing a story that had not been working for thirteen years.
I have no idea how many drafts of [this story] I have done, but it took me 13 years to get the story right.
How do you write with three young kids in the family?
I think the trick is you have to find a way to close the door. Sometimes that might mean getting a babysitter, or, if you can’t, then writing when the kids are at school or asleep. You cannot write with kids on your lap - at least, I can’t.
I’ve always also had a “day job” to balance. For the past three years I’ve been the publisher of the journal Sh’ma. I’m also, as I mentioned, the fiction editor of Unstuck. I think some people paint this idyllic picture of what it’s like to write with a family but for me, first and foremost it’s a constant tension, balancing writing time and family time. It’s particularly hard when I’m writing something that stinks. (As I said, you have to write a lot that stinks before you can write something that will last.)
For years, my kids would ask me what I do in my office every day, and I would tell them: “I’m writing a book.” Only, there was no book. Only draft after draft.
At some point, I did start to worry what would happen if I never actually published a book. How often can you disappear into your office and leave your kids with a babysitter or nanny without having something tangible you can show them? I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve never had anything but support from wife, my kids and my family.
...But even if I had never published a book I would still feel (at least intellectually) okay. You have to believe that the work, the daily writing, has value in and of itself - that being true to your imagination and giving yourself the space to write is meaningful on its own, no matter what ever happens. Writing is not just a means to an end.
The real key to success as a writer is figuring out your routine and learning your own writerly habits. There are as many ways of writing as there are writers. You can’t do it the way someone else tells you to do it. Some writers write every single day. Others write only during the summer, when they have off from teaching. Some write at night, others during the day. Some write on the subway on the way to work. I once read that Kazuo Ishiguro spent years thinking about Remains of the Day before he wrote a single word.
You need to learn how you work best for yourself. I had a writing teacher at Iowa tell us to set aside just 30 minutes a day for writing. I thought that was a great idea. And then I had a teacher at Iowa tell us: write for one minute a day. Who can’t find one minute out of the day to write? The point, of course, is that one minute turns into two, and then three, and then before you know it, you’re writing something you truly care about, something of value. The key, no matter where you are in your career, whether novice or fabulously published, it to commit yourself to the task. And, as Richard Bach says: Don’t quit.
Rachel Worrall is a writer and model from the UK. She is crazy about reading and equally crazy about writing. She is currently working on her second novel 'Amen'.