My short story “F-Man,” published in the Summer 2014 issue of Carve Magazine, is a top 10 finalist for the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award.
The literary magazine storySouth developed this yearly award to “honor and promote the best fiction published in online literary journals and magazines.” I’m excited for “F-Man” to be a finalist along with the other stories, which represent a wondrous and varied collection of voices.
storySouth founded the Million Writers Award to fill a void it identified in short story awards. Too few were geared toward stories published online. Says storySouth of the rationale behind the award:
The reason for the Million Writers Award is that most of the major literary prizes for short fiction (such as the Best American Short Stories series and the O. Henry Awards) have traditionally ignored web-published fiction. This award aims to show that world-class fiction is being published online and to promote this fiction to the larger reading and literary community.
The finalists are chosen by a panel of judges from stories submitted by editors and readers alike. The winner is then determined through reader votes.
This story is particularly special to me in part because of the special magazine that published. it. Carve made the publication experience a delight. They are a team of careful, caring editors who take the time to read your work, and scour it for ways to improve it. One of my favorite things about Carve is that it publishes stories online as well as in print in its Premium Editions. Premium Editions contain author interviews as well as artwork, poetry, illustrations, rejection statistics, and other extras that aren’t online. Since the Premium Edition including “F-Man” and my interview is now sold out, I have included below my interview with Matthew Limpede, Carve’s Editor in Chief, about the origins of “F-Man,” my background in law and classical singing, my style of writing, revising, editing, and teaching, and more:
I was expecting this question, so I went back to look through my files. I’m a former lawyer so I keep everything. As I was sifting through the different versions, I remembered that this story started with me thinking, what if someone just wanted to disappear? I remember getting all these books from the library about changing your identity, though I can’t for the life of me remember what spurred my interest…but I also have to admit, F-Man is based on one of my neighbors. He and his brother own a building up the street from our place in a fairly urban area of L.A. F-Man has lived around here forever. He’s got Tourette’s and some other issues. I didn’t even notice him until my son was a toddler. That’s when F-Man started walking around the neighborhood yelling, “Fuck you!” And you could really set your clock by him. At the time we didn’t know who he was and just tried to ignore him. But as my son got older, he started realizing that the guy was yelling something that wasn’t quite right. One day he looked at me and said, “Mommy, I know what he’s saying, and it’s bad.” [Laughs.] Welcome to L.A., kid! I’ve since gotten to know F-Man and he’s on different medicines and doesn’t yell as much, and he’s this lovely, gentle man who’s got this very set patter. He likes to talk about TV shows and the weather and what he’s going to eat that day. He loves our dog, Buster, and spent the first six months we had our dog standing in front of our building yelling, “Buster!” and barking. So I thought about what it would be like if someone moved into our quirky little neighborhood and encountered this guy. I wrote the first five pages, hated them, and then just let the story sit. I revisited it last year, or maybe the end of 2012. But I didn’t finish it until last year.
Oh yes. To me that’s writing. The first draft is the agony you have to go through to get to the real writing. I love to revise. It’s what keeps me writing. The first draft process is intensely painful for me.
I knew from the beginning I wanted to write a story about a single woman who lives across the hall from this mom, this little boy, and this cat. I even knew the ending, at least in the sense of what was going to happen, loosely. Which is unusual for me. But I didn’t know Mila was a singer at first, and I didn’t realize that the little boy was going to have the issues that he had. I knew that Mila and the boy were going to have a relationship, but I didn’t know she was going to have a combative relationship with her ex. I was thinking, she’s just going to want to leave her life because of some failure, and eventually the failure became a failed relationship. I didn’t want it to be a domestic abuse situation, and I still don’t think that’s what it is. I think it’s an extremely unhealthy relationship, and a verbally abusive relationship, but not a physically violent one. And I knew she had to leave that relationship. What surprised me most was that what pushed her to leave was the loss of her voice. That I didn’t anticipate.
It was that she was a singer and I needed a reason for her to lose her voice. I distinctly remember doing the research for how she could’ve lost her voice. I trained as a singer for 12 years, and I loved it, but I always knew I couldn’t be a professional. Training really refined my voice, but there was only so far I could go. After I’d been practicing law several years, I didn’t have the time or the places to sing anymore, so I looked around for a new creative outlet and discovered writing. When I wrote this story, I hadn’t sung in a long time, and I was embarrassed to sing because I didn’t sound like myself anymore. I started thinking about how hard that is. What would it be like to not sing at all and to lose that entirely? And then I started thinking like a writer, thinking about how that could happen. I didn’t want to go with nodes, which seemed too obvious. That’s when I started getting the idea for the dysfunctional relationship and having her escape the life she had before she lost her voice. So I started meshing all these things together.
I tend to write small, quiet stories. I wish I could write big and bold and shocking, but I tend to look for quieter moment, which surprises me, because life never feels quiet for me. [Laughs.] But I definitely prefer the more intensely intimate moment, so it’s nice hearing that I nailed that on paper.
No, no, it’s not big and exciting, it’s frantic and chore-filled. [Laughs.] I’ve got a 9-year-old son, I teach private workshops and do private coaching, and I teach for UCLA Extension. So I spend a lot of time administrating and trying to fit writing in. It’s wake up, exercise, get the kid ready for whatever he needs to do, and then start working. I’m a morning person, so especially when my son first started grammar school, I was waking up at 4:45 in the morning to get everything done, and that just wasn’t working. [Laughs.] I get up a little later now, but morning is my best time to write. I try to start the day off by writing because it doesn’t happen every day. I love to teach but it’s very time-consuming so that often gets in the way. And when I find it getting too much in the way, rather than power up my laptop, where I’m tempted to critique other people’s work, I pull out one of my journals—I have an essay journal, a story journal, a novel journal—I pull one of those out and I make myself handwrite. But generally I try to start every day writing. When I pick up my kid in the afternoon I can’t really focus on writing. So I try to keep my critiquing and administrative stuff for the afternoon.
There’s also always a long dog walk in there somewhere. Always, always. We have a huge black German Shepherd who’s about 3 years old and needs tons of exercise. At first I resisted even getting a pet because I’d had cats and other dogs and I loved them but they required a lot of maintenance, and once my son was born I didn’t want anything else in my life that needed something from me. But my kid’s an only child and my husband and I decided he needed a buddy. They needed to be puppies together—actually, never do that—but we wound up with this super energetic dog who drove me nuts unless I found a way to exhaust him. I discovered that when I walked him I just walked. I didn’t talk on the phone, I didn’t worry about anything. So I try to do that every day because that’s my time where I let my mind wander and listen to podcasts. As much as I love and miss music, it’s nice to listen to stories from The Moth, or This American Life, or The Drum, or whatever. I pick up seeds of information that make me think about my own work in a different way. I generate ideas. So I try to fit that in every day, not just for the dog but for me. Because let’s face it, everything we do is a little bit selfish [Laughs]. It’s the reason we become writers!
If I get in 3 hours, I’m thrilled. I miss the MFA days where we really did write all day. It was the only time when I was surrounded by other people who care as much as I do about how much time we get to write. Six hour stretches where I could just write because there was nothing else. Those days are gone. Generally, it’s probably 2 hours. I don’t get to write on the weekends. It’s really hard. But if I get in 3 hours I’m thrilled, and if I get more than that I want to throw a party.
I do. I have a MFA and a law degree. I knew from pretty much the first day of law school I wanted to quit.
Yeah. Oh my god, it was awful. But I had never quit anything. I’d gone straight from college to law school, and I thought well this is just what people do. I had these grand ideas—I had studied psychology and focused on domestic violence, and I wanted to be a champion for domestic abuse victims. I figured I’d be more effective in the field as a lawyer than as a psychologist. Then I started law school and realized how much I hated law. But you know, I figured I’d graduate, work for some high-powered law firm, make partner, make tons of money and then retire and do something else. Which I came to realize was a wee bit unrealistic. Especially since I couldn’t stand practicing law. About 5 years in, I started writing. I kind of liked it, but I had never written before and I was still practicing law and I didn’t commit myself. So I decided to go work for a company instead of a law firm, save up a little bit of money, and quit. Which I did. Then I spent a year writing and filling out applications, and then I got into grad school.
Most people go to law school because they’re told, “You’re a good arguer!” and “You’re a good writer!” So how else do you use your writing skills to argue? I was a really good academic writer, and I had written some fiction in high school, but I wasn’t one of those kids who journaled or wrote outside of school. I loved to read, and I knew I could write a great essay. Once I became a lawyer and realized it wasn’t working for me, I thought well there are some lawyers who write and I loved to read so much that maybe I should try writing too. Once I started doing it, it was like, ohh yeah, this is why there are so many frustrated lawyers who want to be writers. It was really lovely. I’d told you I was a singer before but I knew that wouldn’t take me anywhere. I wasn’t going to join a band, I had a really demanding job, and I was trained classically anyway. So writing seemed like a good thing to try, and I really loved it.
I got it at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
I was one of the older people in the program. I had been in L.A. since finishing law school and I really felt like I wanted to go away for graduate school. In LA. I’d been immersed in a world where a lot of my friends are lawyers and I didn’t want to live that lifestyle anymore—I wouldn’t be able to as a writer. Around the time I started getting acceptances to grad school, I met my now-husband, and I thought, oh no! Now I don’t want to go away anymore. I started praying I’d get into Irvine, because it’s close to L.A. and it’s such a great program.
Oh, it’s fantastic. But I got waitlisted. And Iowa gave me money, and they were wonderful. My husband and I did a lot of flying back and forth. We were on a plane every other week. Used lots of frequent flyer miles and just made it work. It was a wonderful time in my life because not only had I met my husband, it was also the first time I tentatively started calling myself a writer. There were people in the program who were younger than me who weren’t tentatively calling themselves writers, they were firmly saying it: “This is who I am. I am a writer. This is what I’m going to do with my life.” I still have very dear friends from Iowa who are readers for me, and I read for them. I don’t think I would be a writer today if I had not gone to graduate school.
Yeah. Yeah, and well, believe me before I went I had heard things, that some people hated it, that it’s so competitive and it’s so this and so that. But I had spent years arguing with talent agents. [Laughs.] So to me, the Workshop was a dreamland. I was in this place where people loved writing and lived and breathed writing and talked about writing, and it was all about comparing your ass-in-the-chair time. I was there right before Frank Conroy got sick. I loved Frank. He really cared about making us better writers. He could be a hard ass, but I would take him over a talent agent any day. [Laughs.] I also went in there saying, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I’m new to all this. Bring it on. Tell me what you think. And I think going into any writing program saying, “I have so much to learn,” is the only way to do it. Because if you go in thinking you know everything and you’re really wedded to your work, and you aren’t open to criticism or getting better at the craft, then why are you going?
I love the work that Carve publishes. I always talk about you guys, and not just the magazine. I recommend your literary services as well. I’ve told my students about you. I was just looking through the magazine today and I love the stories you publish.
There’s always a “business of publishing” component to my classes, so I always talk about Carve because I love your business model too.
I’ve always been involved in several writing groups at a time, which helps me get fresh feedback at various stages in my work. But with the two stories I sent you, I had gotten to a point where I didn’t know what else to do with them. I’d used up all my “fresh reads” and I needed a new perspective. I saw your service—and I don’t remember, I think it was one of my students, Lisa Mecham, whose poetry you’ve published. She may have told me about you and said, hey there’s this great magazine. So I looked you up and I think you had just started your editing service. I thought, this magazine is gorgeous, and I love the work they’re publishing, so I’m going to try them. You were wonderful. You gave such great feedback. It made so much sense. And even though one of the stories you worked on with me got accepted before I got your comments, I’m using your comments now to edit the story for my collection. You give wonderful feedback and I had never used a service before, and you’ve now spoiled me because I’ll probably never use another service again. I really enjoyed working with you.
It was amazing. These days I really only do writing, coaching and teaching. Editing, for me, oh my god. I love to edit, but it is so time consuming.
I find myself going down that path of getting so—because again, revision is my favorite thing—so engrossed in working on someone else’s manuscript…you don’t feel as lost in someone else’s work. You look at it with much clearer eyes. I can come up with good, practical suggestions for people, but it’s much harder to do that with my own work. You’re so laden with what your vision had been and where the story came from and what you hoped it would be. It’s harder to make those calculations for yourself than for other people, so when I start editing other people, that work takes over. I don’t know how you guys do it.
I have the same experience as a teacher. It takes a certain mental space and energy to go to that place where you can say, okay, now I have to help people make their writing better without discouraging them. That’s a fine line.
Before graduate school I took classes at UCLA Extension. That’s where I started writing. I had a great teacher, Paul Mandelbaum, who taught us to use a tiered system of submitting to mags. You know, find the magazines you love and send to the top ones first, then as you get rejections, you send to the next tier, and so on. That’s the way I used to do it. And to a certain extent, I still do. Paul was the managing editor of Story magazine and he would tell us don’t waste your money on contests. You have a smaller chance of getting published because there can only be one winner. But after a while I kind of said, well screw that. [Laughs.] I had some success with contests, which was really nice and surprising. But I had many more failures. I could wallpaper several rooms with my rejections if I ever printed them out. When I went and looked back at my submissions for “F-Man” for your Story Statshot questionnaire, I saw that I’d submitted it to almost all contests, which surprised me because I never used to do that. I guess I had decided that I really wanted another contest win, but what was the point in spending money on contests I wasn’t winning? Why not go back to the way I used to do it and submit to magazines I love? So that’s why I sent it to you guys. [Laughs.] I don’t know why I was sending it to all these contests. Paul was right in that you have a lesser chance with contests. Though I’ll still submit to them, just not as many.
So I guess I’m going back to the tier system, but not exactly. I don’t send to all my favorite magazines in the first round anymore. I’ll send to a few of my favorites. But I’ll hold some back because as the rejections come in, I’ll go back and revise. You get a few rejections and you realize, they’re coming in for a reason. The story’s not done yet. At a certain point you do have to let the story go. You have to send it out and get those rejections to see your story in a different light.
That’s the philosophy I take with my workshops. I will make them send out the first story they’ve ever written at the end of six weeks. It’s just a habit they have to get into. It’s easy to tell yourself, it’s not ready, it’s not ready, and you keep putting it off and living your life, unpublished and miserable. Just send it off. You’re going to get the rejection. Just get it over with.
Yes, and of course you tell them to be careful where you send it. You don’t want to get accepted by a magazine that you think is just okay before you hear from that magazine you love. But yeah, I agree. I push my students. I constantly ask them, “Have you sent that piece out yet? Have you sent it out yet?” Don’t be afraid to get the rejection slips. That’s what it’s about.
I have been sitting on that one. I’ve made the rounds. The problem is it’s not long enough to be a novella, and it’s really long for a short story. I really want to try Novella-T but it’s too short for them, by about 1,300 words. I have to decide if I want to sit down and cut it or find ways to make it longer. But I haven’t been able to bring myself to cut it. [Laughs.] An excerpt of it is going to be performed as part of The New Short Fiction Series, which does staged readings of short story collections. That will be really fun. Maybe hearing part of it read aloud by an actor will get me to sit down and decide what to do with it.
The hardest thing for me was to trust myself. To trust that it’s okay to need input. For the longest time, I didn’t consider myself a writer because I would get to a point with whatever I was working on where I didn’t know what to do next and I needed help. But I thought, real writers don’t do that. I finally realized that just because writing is solitary doesn’t mean real writers don’t need input. And as a corollary, I also had to learn it’s also okay to be confident in the choices I make as a writer. I can be selective about what input I listen to. When you’re starting out as a writer, some people take no advice, some people take too much advice…and I’m finally at a point where I don’t listen to everything and I know when I need input and I’m not afraid to ask for help. It’s okay to ask. Writers help other writers.
Here are a few books by authors who inspired me to start writing and who inspire me to keep writing:
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Congratulations on the Million Writers award! And what a gorgeous website!
Thanks for posting the interview. Congrats. Loved F-Man.