literary awards

Beth Mayer and Her Award-Winning Collection

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Beth Mayer’s stories have been published in The Threepenny Review, The Sun Magazine, and The Midway Review. Her debut story collection won the 2019 Hudson Award from Black Lawrence Press. I was delighted to ask her some questions about her beautiful collection. 

VP: We Will Tell You Otherwise focuses on the act of telling. Each of the individual story titles includes the verb to tell. How did you come to realize that was a central theme of these tales? And how did you choose the title of the collection?

BM: When I write, my characters boss me around and engage with my obsessions, curiosities, longings, and fears. It’s a lovely and surprising and personally challenging process. As I launched and drafted and revised each of these stories, I did not write toward a unifying theme. Only later did I recognize the urgency of each character’s telling, their longing to be heard. One line from what I now consider the title story kept humming—“I Will Tell You Otherwise”—then announced itself as the heart of the collection. When that shined out so clearly, the whole book made sense. This allowed me to re-engage with every story, like a discovery.

VP: And who is the “we” of the title? 

(Mark Riddle Photography Studio)

(Mark Riddle Photography Studio)

BM: In my mind, the "we" in the title certainly includes the individual speakers from each story, along with the whole of their collective voice. However, as the author, I count myself among the “we” who needs to tell my stories and be truly heard. But I also hope to leave this notion of “we” open for readers. Maybe some will identify with the teller in one story. Others may feel like part of the collective. Perhaps for some the title is a larger clarion call. 

VP: The stories are wonderfully varied and unique, but all take place in the Midwest. You poke gentle fun at the Midwestern habits, behaviors, and mores of your characters. What does it mean to you that they all come from that region?

BM: In many ways, I am a proud Midwestern. Growing up, I didn’t enjoy an expansive world-view or experience other regions of the country. My examination of Midwestern values, limits, generosity, brilliance, fears are as much internal as they are a critique. In my life and in my writing it is not my business to point at anyone and say “you should be better,” but rather to challenge the deepest regions of my experience and imagination. This comes from a stance of love. So, the people who inhabit the place I come—me among them—are worthy and beautiful and flawed, just like humans on the rest of the planet.

VP: Many of these stories mine the fertile territory of families. You convey complex relationships between parents and children, and between siblings of all ages. I sensed in each story that the characters come from a people.Can you say more about what your characters gain from the interconnectedness within families and also how families entangle them? 

BM: Our deepest human longing, I think, is to be known. But there is a cost to this arrangement, isn’t there? That interests me. What are those costs and why do individuals choose to engage—or not—with others? On what terms? I have empathy for how our experience, character defects, and fears can block us from authentic intimacy.

VP: How did you come to write short stories? I’m always curious about the path to publication of a debut book. How has your writing journey unfolded? 

BM: Some of the stories in this debut short story collection were born when I was pursuing my MFA. Early drafts of these appear in my MFA thesis. I want to be transparent about my process and pace here, because I know how it feels to wonder how long something might take, to worry if a book will ever be done and find a home. After graduate school, as a working mother with school aged children, I found that while I was able to keep reading—which I did, widely—I was only able to devote specific seasons of time to my writing. During these deliberate seasons, I engaged with a writing group, the Loft, and writing friends as I revised, tossed, wrote new stories, and worked on my evolving manuscript. Looking back, I am so glad that my book was not picked up sooner. I love this collection now. I believe in it. When I say “ten years,” this is what I mean.

VP: So many writers feel pressure to write novels when they’d rather stick with stories, but the publishing industry prefers longer works of fiction. Are you working on a novel or are you happy to continue with story writing? 

 BM: Yes, and isn’t that unfortunate? As I writer, I got this message a few times as well. But here we are, and my book is in the world. That was the work I needed to do, which wasn’t about what might sell in a certain market. So be it. My love for short stories is undeterred. And? I am working on a novel now because that is the shape of the story I want to write. 

 VP: Whose short stories do you admire and like to read? Whose stories do you think most resonates with your own? 

 BM: Alice Munro is a master who inspires me. I also happen to admire her as a woman, living her full, rich life, and without apology. I love Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Karen Russell, and Carmen Maria Machado.

 VP: Anything else you’d like to share about your collection or your life as a writer?

 BM: I am grateful to Black Lawrence Press, my friends, my teaching colleagues, my family. And you! Thank you for your kind words and astute questions. This interview was a pleasure. 

Black Lawrence Press (author/purchase page: https://www.blacklawrence.com/we-will-tell-you-otherwise/

Website: https://bethmayer.com/

Twitter https://twitter.com/bethjmayer

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/bethmayerauthor/ 

 

 

Elizabeth Evans on Sustaining a Writing Career

PHOTO: Steve Reitz

PHOTO: Steve Reitz

Elizabeth Evans’ fourth novel, As Good As Dead, is a compelling, suspenseful tale about a friendship between two women writers. Charlotte and Esme become best friends while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but jealousy and competition lead to a betrayal that ends the friendship. Twenty years later, their connection is revived and proves even more destructive than before. Bharati Mukherjee has called Evans “a masterful storyteller,” and the exquisite psychological tension in this novel shows us why.

VP: As Good As Dead vividly reveals the experience of young writers in graduate school who must navigate their insecurities and jealousies, as well as their deep and meaningful connections to each other. I’m curious if their experience was at all similar to your own at Iowa? Have you ever tried to write about the young years in a writer’s career, or did you need the distance of time to capture it?

EE: It was good for me to be at Iowa, to be with other people who believed—as Charlotte put it—in the importance of making “one sentence after another do what you wanted them to do.” In some ways, however, my experience was quite different from that of Charlotte and Esme—and the rest of my classmates: I started out in the Iowa Workshop as a twenty-five year-old divorcee with a tiny child at home. I was like Charlotte in some ways: I am half-deaf and very shy, which meant that I could feel isolated. Yes, I sometimes suffered from resentment and insecurity—Why did so-and-so get that prize? Why did I get so drunk at that party?—but I trusted absolutely that I was writing stories that I needed to write and giving the stories all that I had to give. This probably explains why no workshop criticism that the stories received ever rocked my sense that I was doing the right thing.

(Also, during my second year, I worked with teachers who were very excited about my work, and that was awfully nice.)

As for writing about the young years in a writer’s career—I can’t say why I didn’t ever do it before. I wrote about my experiences in my journals, but it didn’t occur to me to write a story about young writers and the Iowa Writers Workshop until I needed those elements as fuel and setting for the drama of As Good As Dead.

VP: You’ve received wonderful accolades for your writing—including an NEA Fellowship, the James Michener Fellowship, and a Lila Wallace Award, among others. I’d love to know more about your path towards publication. Did you identify as a writer when you were a girl? At what age did you start to receive encouragement?

EE: Even as a little kid, I felt that poetry mattered. I memorized poems and tried my hand at writing my own at a fairly young age. It seemed like an essential activity. My older sister and I used to go to the library to find poetry books, and after I showed my sister some of my own poems, she showed them to her best friend. Their praise—and some praise from my mother, too—gave me a boost. In high school, I had a very small, very informal creative writing class, and the teacher said that I had talent. In college, I won awards for writing fiction and poetry.

VP: What role do you think your awards and institutional support has played in helping to shape your career?

EE: I like to think that I would have kept at my writing without the awards. Making money and being famous—those weren’t big draws. It was the creative process itself, and, then, ultimately, the act of completion: distilling something from the confusion of life and containing it in such a way that, like fuel in a lantern, it provided illumination. I think there is something to what Eudora Welty said, though, that writing was a bit like making jam. You made some and people said, “Mm, that’s good,” and so you make some more.

VP: In your Acknowledgements, you thank your daughter for being a good reader of your drafts. I’m curious about your process. At what stage in the creation of a novel do you share it with others? Who else in addition to your daughter gets to weigh in?

EE: I always take a story or a novel absolutely as far as I can before I show it anyone (I endorse Frost’s idea that we have to be “secret in order to secrete”). My husband is my first reader. He’ll almost certainly suggest some worthwhile changes. After I’ve incorporated those, I will show the work to a few trusted readers. This will invariably mean more edits. My agent doesn’t see the work until these steps are completed.

VP: I’m sure you’re terribly busy with book events, but I wonder if you’ve had time to start on the next novel. If so, can you share about it?

EE: I am very close to finishing a novel about a man who gets stuck on an island in Canada with the adult-daughter he scarcely knows. I don’t think I should say more (see Frost, above).

VP: What advice would offer an aspiring writer today? Do you think it’s a good idea to get an MFA? What else is crucial for writers to know now?

EE: While social media may be important for marketing your work, it is not crucial to your development as a writer. It would be good to locate a few good readers who will give you honest, careful feedback on your work. If you can’t find a few good readers in your community, consider an MFA program (despite comments to the contrary, I’ve never seen evidence that MFA programs homogenize student writing).

It is crucial that you write often and read great literature. We all need lots of exposure to good sentences and well-built stories. Reading the best works will help you learn how to read your own work as if you did not write it; only then will you have a good sense of when your work fails or succeeds.

(Elizabeth's author photo by Steve Reitz)