Slice and Dice

TWENTY YEARS, THREE BOOKS: Reintroducing the Short Stories & Novellas of Andre Dubus

by Joshua Bodwell


On a cold February afternoon in 1998, I visited an independent bookshop in Wells, Maine. In the shop’s ever-reliable “Staff Picks” section, I noticed a paperback by Andre Dubus.  I had never heard of Dubus—and it would be years of mispronunciation before I learned that his last name rhymes with “abuse,” like “duh-byooz”—but that day Dancing After Hours leapt out at me.

Back then—and even today, for that matter—any Vintage Contemporaries paperback with a spare mid-1980s/early-1990s cover design and bold stripe of color on the spine gave me pause. I had been making my way slowly through the entire list of the so-called “Dirty Realists” of the day—Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Russo, Joy Williams, and Tobias Wolff—and they all seemed to be on Vintage Contemporaries, many of them edited by Gary Fisketjon, now an editor and vice president at Knopf.

I thumbed the pages of Dancing After Hours. On the back cover were comparisons to Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and even Anton Chekhov, the greatest of Russian masters. On the basis of a single story’s opening line, I plunked down my twelve dollars: “On a Thursday night in early autumn she nearly committed adultery, was within minutes of consummating it, or within touches, kisses; it was difficult to measure by time or by her mouth and tongue and hands, or by his.” (“The Timing of Sin”)

I quickly discovered Dubus’s work was never easy. The stories were fraught with difficult moments of loneliness and heartache, sudden explosions of violence. And yet, Dubus infused them too with tenderness and redemption, balanced complexity with kindheartedness. He was a devout but complex Catholic, so even when his stories felt suffused with a kind of spirituality, they never felt “religious” in a didactic sense; rather than accepting the black-and-white of church doctrine, they embraced the grayness of reality.

I was rapt.

A few months after my initial discovery, I found three paperback editions of Dubus’s early books at a favorite used bookstore housed in a former train depot: Separate Flights (1975), Adultery & Other Choices (1977), and Finding a Girl in America (1980).The covers of all three books featured austere black-and-white and hand-lettered titling in red. The elegant paperbacks were the work of Boston-based David R. Godine, Publisher. Just as I trusted the curation of theVintage Contemporaries list so much I would stop and consider any book it published, the moment I held those three Dubus books in that wonderfully book-brimming old train depot, I added books published by Godine to that list, too; it was a list that already included Black Sparrow Press and City Lights Books.


An Interview with Monica McClure 

by Paul Florez

I first met Monica McClure back in 2013 in Greenwich Village when I was an MFA candidate at The New School. We were introduced by a mutual friend, and we spent the evening sipping red wine, discussing poetry, and contemplating the value of an MFA. Her chapbook Mood Swing had just published and I drunkenly raced home to read it. Spoilers, my mind was blown.

In the years that have followed, Monica has become a dear friend and her book Tender Data, published in 2015, has lines that still haunt me till this day: “I want to be so skinny people ask if I’m dying.”

When I envision Monica in my head, I see a bespectacled nomad navigating an apocalyptic tundra full of static televisions, outlet malls and Starbucks—her writing has the uncanny ability of awakening hopeless consumers from their iPhones and pumpkin spice lattes. She is unyielding with her convictions, and fearless when discussing mental health, family, and fashion.

Described as “the poster girl for a new generation of poets,” by NPR’s Craig Teicher, I recently sat down with Monica to discuss her upcoming chapbook from GRAMMA, writing poetry in a post-Trump world, and which iconic literary figure she would selfie with.

Authors In Conversation

Rewriting Chapter Five

by Jeremy Smith

This is a sad tale. But the beginning and the end are happy.

One fall afternoon, at an impromptu playdate for my daughter, I met another parent. By all appearances, she was a regular station-wagon-driving mother of two, complete with baby wipes and Frozen dolls. But her day (and night) job was as a longtime “white hat” hacker called Alien, hired by businesses and government agencies to break into them and test their defenses, or to investigate “black hat” baddies around the world who already had.

The story was a writer’s dream—exciting, surprising, extraordinarily timely, and rich with action. With Alien’s agreement, I wrote a proposal for a nonfiction book about her adventures and the birth and growth of our information insecurity age. My agent sold it to a prominent and acclaimed editor. In January 2016, I signed the contract.

By May 2016, I’d completed the first four chapters. My editor read them and said that I was doing everything exactly right and to keep up the good work. Alien also reviewed the material for factual accuracy. She had a few corrections but commended me on my storytelling and how well I’d captured the culture of the depicted period. If this wasn’t encouragement enough, two movie producers read my proposal and were wowed by the potential they saw in it and my early chapters. They named an actress whose face was on the cover of a thick, glossy magazine in my living room and said she loved the story, too. As soon as I completed the manuscript, they wanted to shop a script treatment to studios.

I was ecstatic, of course. And anxious. Daydreams haunted me.

I work in an attic office. By late May, the heat means blasting an air conditioner that swallows any sound but my own breathing and shading my only window to shut out the sun. In June 2016, totally secluded, I started chapter five. At the end of August, I sent a draft of this and other new material to Alien, since my editor and the movie folks only wanted to see the completed manuscript. I raised my shade. Squinting, I watched clouds pass outside.

Alien had other obligations, namely hacking, so two months passed before she read the draft. When she did, she was aghast. Most of what I’d written was factually incorrect, she told me. I’d taken many hours of interviews and distorted them into something unrecognizable. Other important parts of the story were missing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “but I think that you should start over.”

I could have dismissed these criticisms. Typical journalistic practice is not to show the subject of a story a piece while it’s in draft form, and often not at all prior to publication. The theory is that he or she is too close to the material and too partial to a particular perspective to render objective judgment. Let any source, even the subject, sway you and you abandon your higher duty to your readers. Yet Alien was so central to this story that I couldn’t proceed without her help. And, as I let her comments sink in over the change of seasons, I couldn’t help admitting their accuracy. She was right. I’d let my own preconceptions color my portrait of this specific hacker’s character and personality. I really would have to begin again on the work that had taken me all summer to complete, and only then after re-interviewing her extensively to make sure I had the details right this time.

Simply getting the facts straight—not yet even rewriting—took five days a week, eight hours a day, for another two months. Simultaneous with this process, near the new year, one of the movie producers called. I’d just picked my daughter up from her last day of first grade before winter break. I had in mind a sled ride followed by hot chocolate. Now I tossed her the iPad. “Watch anything!” I said, and ran to my room with the phone.

“How are you?” the producer asked. We made small talk for five minutes and then she shifted deftly to business. “Everyone” was eager to see if I was, possibly, ahead of schedule and could share a complete draft sooner than anticipated.

“No,” I had to tell her. In fact, I was now months behind schedule.

I emailed my editor afterward. “I need an extension,” I said.

Delays and detours happen all the time in publishing, but I felt terrible. I’d bungled an incredible opportunity. I was lucky not to have Alien quit on me. The movie star would forget my name if she had ever even known it. Someone else would publish a cool book about hackers before me. My own contract would be torn up.

In January 2017, as snow fell, I wrote chapter five a second time. Alien loved the new draft when she read it. My editor, however, who’d decided to review this and other material in progress, seemed to hate it. “You’ve gotten so close to her point of view that you’ve stopped explaining anything to readers,” he said. “What’s really happening in each scene? Why did Alien choose one action over another? How did the consequences of that decision feel? She knows, and maybe you know, but you’re not letting readers in on the secrets.”

I pushed back. “Isn’t the dictum to show, not tell?”

“Bullshit,” he said. “Writers have to show and tell. They have to say what’s happening at every point. That’s what all good storytelling does. It just does it so well that readers don’t notice.”

I closed my laptop and picked up other books I admired. And I reread the early chapters that everyone had liked. He was right. There was telling on every page.

I worked on other chapters through the rest of the winter and early spring. Then, in May 2017, I installed new air-conditioner filters, lowered the shades for the summer, and wrote chapter five and everything that followed it a third time. Before doing so, I asked Alien for a new round of interviews, this time to discuss her thoughts and feelings during the events I’d described. After some convincing, she agreed, but was so busy that the only time we could talk were Friday nights between nine p.m. and midnight. Days and nights, weekdays and weekends blurred between interviewing, transcription, and rewriting. I cut a third of what I’d written and replaced it with interior perspective. I hoped the book was getting better but had no idea. The movie producers called. I didn’t answer.

In September 2017, as my daughter told me she could now walk alone to the school bus stop, I wrote chapter five a fourth time. By this point, I’d finished a complete draft of the entire book but was determined to go back over everything again before sharing it. My own taskmaster, I spent several difficult weeks trying to articulate the takeaway in every scene. If there wasn’t one, I cut it. Little by little, I added explanations and exposition. The book was getting better. I knew it now. But it was fifteen chapters long and I was writing chapter five—again—just as I had been fifteen months earlier. Meeting even my extended deadline for submission, January 2018, seemed impossible.

I felt like I’d failed. I still worked in the attic but spent hours every day near tears. I was depressed to the point that friends and family suggested I needed professional help. In October, for the first time in my life, I saw a therapist.

Five sessions later, the worst of my depression was over. But I was exhausted. And I still had to finish the book.

The fifth time I wrote chapter five was November 2017, typing sleep-deprived editing instructions to myself on my phone while my wife drove us ten hours over icy roads to Thanksgiving dinner with her family. The sixth time I wrote chapter five was March 2018, sending my daughter to an all-week spring break gymnastics camp when my editor gave me edits and queries on the complete draft I’d submitted at the end of January. The seventh time I wrote chapter five was a month and a half later, as our local farmers’ markets opened, after the book was ostensibly submitted to production, yet my editor and I decided that the first hundred pages needed to be approximately five thousand words shorter. In June 2018, while normal people bought new swimsuits, I wrote chapter five again—and again—and again—after fact-checking, copy-editing, and legal review.

This is who I am now, I realized. I am someone who spends two years, off and on, writing chapter five.

Today my editor works for a different publisher. The movie producers who contacted me have ended their own partnership. As soon as advance copies of my book were available, my agent sent one to the agent of the movie star. So far, we haven’t heard anything back.

Yet I’m pleased. My book came out this week, on Tuesday, nearly three years to the day that I signed the contract. As books go, that’s actually quite fast, notwithstanding what seemed at the time like career-ending setbacks. And if I’m being honest, the pressure and pain, excitement and dread that I experienced now feel like distant memories. I barely recall any version other than the final draft. Someone else composed those sentences. All he and I have in common are the scars.

If you’re lucky enough to have your work published, writing a book is like giving birth and then the child leaving immediately for college. Already, I’m thinking of new projects. This time, I tell myself, I’ll be ready. Whatever I start, I know that I’ll get stuck somewhere, lost and without hope, with only friends and family to remind me not to hate myself, and my own work routine to push through the rewrites. It may not be the fifth chapter in the book, but it will be “chapter five” to me. The part of the writing process that torments me most and won’t let go. The part I appreciate afterward in a way no one else can.

When I was seeking help for depression, I learned that simply naming and describing feelings and experiences can be part of the healing process. Chapter five’s title is “Up All Night.” All-nighters hurt. But eventually they end, and the sun rises, and we turn our tired eyes toward the changing light.

Jeremy Smith has written for The Atlantic, Discover, and the New York Times, among other outlets, and he and his work have been featured by CNN, NPR, and Wired.  A graduate of Harvard College and the University of Montana, he is the author of Epic Measures and Growing a Garden City.

Jeremy speaks frequently before diverse national audiences, including the  National Academy of Sciences, the  Center for Global Development, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Minne Analytics, Town Hall Seattle,  the Salt Lake City Public Library, and classes at Harvard University, Dartmouth College, the University of Minnesota, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Oregon State University, and San José State University.

Jeremy lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife and daughter.

Authors In Conversation

LitCrawl Brooklyn: A Multilingual Most Exquisite Corpse

by Jessie Chaffee:

At PEN America’s Lit Crawl Brooklyn 2018, Words Without Borders and SLICE Literary partnered to present a multilingual exquisite corpse, a story authored by four international writers—Glaydah Namukasa, Ibtisam Azem, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Silvana Paternostro—and translated by Dr. Merit Kabugo, Sinan Antoon, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Mary Ann Newman.

In the exquisite corpse tradition, one writer penned the first segment of the story (in this case, Ugandan writer Glaydah Namukasa, who was given a prompt line from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H., translated by Idra Novey: “I’d transformed myself little by little into the person who bears my name”). The next writer, Ibtisam Azem, received the final line of that first segment and continued the story in Arabic. And so on, and so on, until we reached the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. As this exquisite corpse was multilingual, it had the added layer of translation, as, for example, the final line of Amir Ahmadi Arian’s section, written in Farsi, was translated into English and then into Spanish so that Silvana Paternostro could complete the story.

At the Lit Crawl event, hosted by WWB’s Jessie Chaffee and SLICE’s Marae Hart, the writers and translators (and several audience volunteers) shared the story with the large crowd on the steps of the Brooklyn Museum, in both English translation and the original languages.


By Glaydah Namukasa, Ibtisam Azem, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Silvana Paternostro
Translated By Merit Kabugo, Sinan Antoon, Amir Ahmadi Arian, and Mary Ann Newman

The Person Who Bears My Name

English Version

1. Glaydah Namukasa (Luganda original), Dr. Merit Kabugo (English translation)

I’d transformed myself little by little into the person who bears my name.” He got up suddenly and pushed both hands into his trouser pockets, trying to conceal the trembling that had engulfed his body. “Doctor, I recently discovered that I was fooling myself all along, and that I was indeed fooling everyone else. I do not deserve to be called a superhero.”

“Why do you think so?”

“I did not escape from those guys because of personal courage. No . . . there is something I did in order to become a commander. I believed that if they made me a commander I would be able to escape from them.”

He walked away from the doctor. He thought that he had made a mistake coming to the doctor. He had committed a grave crime, which he could not share with anyone. He suddenly heard the voice of a three-day-old baby, whom he had grabbed from her mother’s embrace, pushing her into the stomach of a pig and stitching her in there. The baby’s voice was saying you are a half-beast.

“Don’t go away.” The doctor got up from the chair and drew closer to him. “You were in captivity and whatever you did during your time in captivity was not out of your own wish.”

He slowed his pace. He then turned suddenly and returned to his seat with a bowed head.

The doctor also returned to his seat and said, “That is good. It is also good that you came to see me, because it is a sign that you need help. I want to assure you that I am ready to help you . . .” The doctor took a silent pause and then continued, “I want to reassure you that I am ready to help you.”

He then lifted his head and said, “Counselor, I don’t think I am able to tell you what I did.”

2. Ibtisam Azem (Arabic original), Sinan Antoon (English translation)

He then lifted his head and said, “Counselor, I don’t think I am able to tell you what I did.”

Let me be more specific. It is more than not being able to tell you what I did. I simply lost the desire to talk. Everything happens with the first bullet that settles into a warm body, turning it cold. “War” was a big and distant word, but it became much smaller when I became a log in its firewood. I was firewood, don’t you think so? I was a sniper and a sniper is a god. I decided, with the pull of a trigger, who would live and who would be my next target. They were not victims. They were targets, targets we had to hit. How can I not believe that divine intervention sent me to this war?

She was a child. No more than fifteen. That’s what I realized later. But she looked like a full-grown woman. She insisted on approaching the checkpoint. It was extremely hot, as if the gods had thrown us into a frying pan. I was sweating profusely. She was walking confidently toward us. We yelled at her. “Stop . . . Stop!” We didn’t say it in her language, of course. But is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know the word “stop”? What can I tell you? The red dot was right between her eyes. She felt it and furrowed her finely plucked eyebrows.

All this heat and the hubbub surrounding us were shattered in seconds. I felt very cold after shooting the bullet. There was silence and I stood behind it. A god in the shape of a sniper.

3. Amir Ahmadi Arian (Farsi original and English translation) 

There was silence and I stood behind it. A god in the shape of a sniper. I released the safety and looked at him through the scope. Picking up boxes from the trunk, his face kept moving around. It was difficult to see his whole face at once. A nose so small it was barely visible, a mouth that moved even when he was not talking, thinning hair. I saw the features one by one but didn’t get a chance to put them together into a full face. It made no difference anyway. I am sure when god gets down to take a human life, he never thinks of their faces. Nothing like ignoring a face to make killing easy. Now that the turn of events had put me in the god-like position of taking this man’s life with a slight movement of my finger, I had no reason to care about his face.

The man picked up the last box and put it on the ground. He walked around the car and exchanged some words with the driver, then ran back to his own car, like he had sensed something. His sudden change of pace distracted me. He took three long strides from one car to the other and paused only when he was opening the door. I followed him through the scope, and pulled the trigger as soon as he paused. The bullet made a hole in the car.

4. Silvana Paternostro (Spanish original), Mary Ann Newman (English translation) 

The bullet made a hole in the car. In the door on the driver’s side.

They knew that everything had happened in under three minutes because the Bee Gees were still on. The four friends had gone out in the silver four-door that Lucho’s dad had just given him as a gift. It was the night before Mother’s Day and they had decided to do what grownups do, for which you need to have a car: they hired a trio of those musicians who sit outside the stadium waiting for customers to show up. The four of them pooled their money to pay the serenaders who would follow them from house to house in a taxi. They negotiated a set price. It would be the same for each mom. They all knew one another and they didn’t want any hurt feelings later on.

Lucho was parking in front of the first stop, Juancho’s house. He was waiting for the trio to arrive in the taxi, but what flew past instead seemed jet-propelled. “Hey, your lights!” shouted Lucho, almost shrieking. The streets of his city were dark, and that midnight there was no moonlight.

They stopped singing “Staying Alive” when they heard the van brake. The sound alerted them that it was one of those magical fearsome cars that had begun appearing in the city a few months back.

Everyone had heard the stories: the shot fired in the discotheque, the pistol at your temple following a whistle at a stoplight.

They watched as the Blazer with tinted windows backed up. “You said something to me,” was what they thought they heard, ’cause no one really knows what they heard. Everything happened so fast.

“You’re driving without lights, my friend,” Lucho had started to say when the shots cut him off.

“That’s so you don’t stick your nose where it’s not wanted, kid.” And with that the smoky window went up and the van continued on its weaponized way without turning on the lights. There were more than five of them, so between the shots and the squeal of the tires, the people on the block started coming out of their houses. The first to approach the car were gardeners, cooks, nannies, custodians, and doormen.

The engine was still running. Lucho, Poncho, Chacho, and Juancho sat paralyzed in their seats. The song wasn’t ending. Staying Alive, Staying Alive . . . Lucho pulled a flashlight out of the glove compartment and started examining his car like a pediatrician examining a newborn. Yes, there was the bullet. Embedded in the door below the lock. Immediately after, Juancho’s papa and mama came out in their pajamas. At that time on a weeknight, this traditional, conservative part of the city had already prayed and gone to bed. The Manotas came out to see what all the fuss was. They found their son with his friends, a taxi driver demanding to be paid, and a few agitated mariachis, still ready to play “Las mañanitas,” lest they lose the trip. Without understanding anything, Juancho’s mother received her serenade. The only thing that had become clear that night was that the city had new owners, men who would shoot at you just because.

Readers May-Zhee Lim, Amanda, Pedro Zenteno, Amir Ahmadi Arian, Sinan Antoon, and Ibtisam Azem. Photo: Jessie Chaffee.

The Person Who Bears My Name

Multilingual Version

1. Glaydah Namukasa (Luganda)

“Nagenda nkyuuka mpolampola okutuusa lwenafuuka omuntu kati nyini linnya erimpitibwa.” Yayimuka mangu ddala nateeka emikono gyombi munsawo ze’mpale, olwo nno nga agezaako okukweeka okujjugumira okwali kumutandise. “Naye Musawo, munnaku ezo eziyise ngenze nkizuula nti nali nelimba bwelimbi, era mbadde nimba buli omu. Sigwanira kuyitibwa muzira mubazira.”

“Lwaki olowooza bwotyo?”

“Okuwona abassajja abo serwaanako bwerwaanyi. Nedda . . . ninna kyenakola okusobola okufuna obwa kamanda. Nakimanya nti bwebanampa obwa kamanda njakusobola okubatolokako.”

Yatambula agende ave mumaso g’omusawo. Yalowooza nti akoze nsobi okujja ewomusawo. Kyeyali yakola kyali kya naggommola era yali tayinza kukibuulira muntu yenna. Mukaseera ako yawulira eddoboozi ly’omuzimu gw’omwana owennaku essatu gwe yali yagajambula namujja mu mikono gya maama we, namuvumbika mulubuto lwembizzi namutungira omwo ngagumugamba nti oli muntu nsolo

“Togenda.” Omusawo yayimuka kuntebe namusemberera. “Wali mubuwambe era ebyo byonna byewakola nga oli mubuwambe, wabikola teweeyagalidde.”

Yatta kubigere katono. Oluvanyuma yakyuuka omulundi gumu nakomawo naatula nga awunzisse omutwe.

Awo n’omusawo yadda muntebbe ye nayogera nti, “Okoze bulungi. Era wakoze bulungi okujjja okundaba kitegeeza nti weetaaga obuyambi era nkukkakasa nti ndi mweetefutefu okukuyamba . . .” Omusawo yasooka nasiriikirira, oluvanyuma nagamba nti, “Nziramu okkukakasa nti ndi mweeteefuteefu okukuyamba.”

Awo yayimusa amutwe nalyooka agamba nti, “Kansala, kyenakola silowooza nti nsobola okukikugamba.”

2. Ibtisam Azem (Arabic)

3. Amir Ahmadi Arian (Farsi)

4. Silvana Paternostro (Spanish)

La bala le hizo un hueco al carro. En la puerta del lado del conductor.

Sabían que todo pasó en menos de tres minutos porque la canción de los Bee Gees seguía sonando. Los cuatro amigos habían salido en el cuatro puertas plateado que el papá de Lucho le acababa de regalar. Era la víspera del día de las madres y habían decidido hacer lo que hacen los mayores y para lo que se necesita tener carro: contratar un trío de músico de esos que se sientan a esperar que lleguen clientes en frente al estadio. Entre los cuatro le pagarían a los serenateros que irían siguiéndolos de casa en casa en un taxi. Negociaron un precio fijo. Sería la misma canción para cada mamá. Se conocían y no querían el problema de que se resintieran después.

Lucho estaba estacionándose enfrente de la primera parada, la casa de Juancho. Estaban esperando que llegara el trío en el taxi pero lo que paso fue un bólido. “Ey, luces,” grito Lucho casi como un quejido. Las calles de su ciudad son oscuras y esa medianoche no había luz de luna.

Dejaron de cantar Staying Alive cuando oyeron la camioneta frenar, el sonido les aviso que era uno de esos carros mágicos y miedosos que habían empezado a aparecerse en la ciudad hacia un par de meses.

Todo el mundo había escuchado historias: el disparo en la disco, la pistola en la sien después de un pitazo en un semáforo.

Vieron la Blazer de vidrios oscuros retroceder. “Me dijiste algo,” creen que fue lo que oyeron pues nadie sabe muy bien que oyó. Todo pasó tan rápido.

“Vas sin luces, llave,” empezaba Lucho cuando lo interrumpieron los tiros.

“Pa’ que no te metas en lo que no cabes, pelaito.” Y con eso subió la ventana ahumada y sin prender luces prosiguió su camino armado. Fueron más de cinco o sea que con el ruido de las llantas y los disparos empezó a salir la gente de las casas de la cuadra. Al carro se acercaron primero jardineros, cocineras, nanas, celadores y porteros.

El carro seguía prendido. Lucho, Poncho, Chacho, y Juancho paralizados en sus puestos. La canción no se acababa. Staying Alive, Staying Alive . . . Lucho sacó una linterna de la guantera y empezó a examinar su carro como un pediatra a un recién nacido. Si, ahí estaba la bala. Incrustada en la puerta abajito de la cerradura. Acto seguido, salieron el papá y la mamá de Juancho en piyama. A esa hora en un día de semana, esta parte de la ciudad tradicional y conservadora está ya rezada y encamada. Los Manotas salen a ver cuál es la bulla. Se encuentran a su hijo con sus amigos, a un taxista que exigía que le pagaran y a unos mariachis alborotados, pero listos a tocarle “Las mañanitas” a la señora madre no fuera a ser que perdieran el viaje. Sin entender nada, la mamá de Juancho recibió su serenata. Lo único que había quedado claro era que los dueños de la ciudad eran otros, señores que disparaban por qué si.

Participating writers and translators, volunteer readers, and hosts Karen Phillips, Jessie Chaffee, May-Zhee Lim, Amanda, Pedro Zenteno, Amir Ahmadi Arian, Sinan Antoon, Ibtisam Azem, and Marae Hart. Photo: Jessie Chaffee.

Brooklyn Crowd photo by PEN America / Jasmina Tomic


Authors In Conversation

What the Finished Book Hides: How to Keep Going

by Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel

My first book just came out!

What a simple thing to say. I have a book! But like most exclamations, these are smuggling a secret. They hide the hard work it took to write a book. The luck and time. The endurance.

I started this book before my son was born; he’ll be eight years old when it comes out. During those years, the writing was a source of gratitude. I felt myself doing exactly what I wanted to do. And yet, there was so much fatigue and rejection. I almost gave up.

How did I keep going?

“Alas, there are no recipes!” Ursula K. Le Guin reminds me. “We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners.” She’s right, of course. And yet, if, as James Baldwin said, endurance is more important than talent, how can we keep going?

Reflecting on his interviews with other writers in the series By Heart, Joe Fassler notes “recounting challenges that are specific to an individual, even to a particular work,” can help us address our own struggles. Stories of endurance are stories after all—they help us feel less alone. They help us go on.

So, what follows is not a manual. It’s a story. A companion. A hope that something I’ve learned might help you endure.


At the end of graduate school, I had a finished thesis that was only the beginning of the book I wanted to write. Some of the essays would have to go. Others would find new forms. I expanded on an erasure of Genesis but tossed an essay on Georgia O’Keefe (even though I still love that one). I wrote new essays. I dug deeper into drafts. I did that for a long time. For years. It was hard.

For a while, I thought that I just needed to figure out what sustains me during difficulty. What keeps me creatively engaged? Reading a poem? Taking walks? Forcing myself to do yoga? Being completely alone as if I’ve escaped through a wormhole? YES. But. What I also needed was a way to address the fears of productivity (demanding: When will you finish?) in order to get back to the fears of creativity (asking: What can I make?).

In those early days, I tried to find some control over the writing process by making appointments with myself for writing. I blocked out time on the calendar and nothing was allowed to interrupt it.

This didn’t actually work. I had a newborn who became a toddler. Then I had another baby. Along with the toddler.

So I tried incentives. I could buy an Americano if I got through an essay draft by a self-imposed deadline. I could buy a new pair of boots if I got through a draft of the whole manuscript. I’ve heard of other writers holding each other accountable; if they don’t meet deadlines they have to make a very large (say $100) donation to an organization they hate (they chose the NRA).

This worked! Most of the time.

But what I needed was more time. I have an amazing partner who supported me and watched the kids and yet we both worked. We needed help. So I searched the web for “Washington state artist grants” and applied for one that could cover additional childcare costs. I wrote formulaically about how much childcare I had, how much more I needed, and how much it would cost. I was very clear: the grant would supplement my own investment, allowing me to finish a draft of the book. I got the grant. And every time I used that money, I was reminded that someone else was paying for my writing time. I wasn’t about to waste it. I didn’t procrastinate. I wrote.

Once I had solid drafts, I emailed them to people I trusted. They didn’t have to read them. Just sending them out let me see the work in a new way.

I also gave up. I broke up with the manuscript twice. Each time, I registered how it felt to abandon this book, to walk away from it and say: I’m done with you! And each time, I discovered that I missed it—a lot. I mourned it. I felt like I was missing my arm. Or my kid. Registering this feeling allowed me to return to the manuscript, renewed and full of conviction that I was writing what I needed to be writing.

At the core though, what really kept me going was that I couldn’t let go of the work. My questions about the essays continued to interest me. Why did I feel so afraid when I heard Dick Cheney’s voice? What happened to me that time I swam with sharks? Why did Liberace’s bedazzled clothes make him the target of so much male disdain? I had come to a point where I understood so much about the essays—their form and narrative stance, their approach and descriptions. And yet I still understood so little. I was drawn back into the work by what I didn’t yet understand.

Now, looking back, there’s something I didn’t do that I should have absolutely done: given myself a break. Life happens and it did often for me in the years it took to write the book. I had two kids. Started a full time job. Moved across the country. Bought a house. All exciting things! But they often meant I couldn’t keep working at a full tilt on the essays. I like to think I’m learning to embrace this flux, not to find “balance,” which I don’t think exists, but to relax into the pace of the work—to trust myself and believe that I am doing all that I can.

I had put so much pressure on the writing. When I didn’t finish a draft or I couldn’t seem to get an idea onto the page in the way I wanted, I felt awful. I was really hard on myself. Why can’t I do this? I thought. Other writers I graduated with are already onto their second book! This internalized competition prompted me to work harder, but it didn’t always make the writing better. It made me want to finish. Not write. Comparisons are odious. They obscure a very basic fact: Someone else’s book is not a book I could have written. Someone else’s progress and accolades aren’t mine. I can only be the writer I am. Or as the writer Inara Verzemnieks says, “I’m a writer of one.”

I do what I can do. And others? Through their success, I found the ultimate form of sustenance: to celebrate that success—the award they get, the essay they publish, the coverage in the freakin’ New Yorker, because BOOKS! Don’t we love them? Isn’t that why we’re here?



When I thought the manuscript was done, I started to query agents and independent publishers.

Actually, that’s a lie. I started to query them long before the manuscript was actually done. I thought it was done enough to query agents. Was this a mistake? Maybe. I spent a lot of time researching and sending out to agents who ended up being interested and then not. And yet, sending out too soon had another consequence that might not have been that bad—it let me see the book as publishers and agents might. This helped me refine the book, but I wouldn’t recommend it. As I began to submit the book, it took on the glow of a product. I had to package it through a query letter and descriptive materials shaped by the language of marketing.

When I started submitting to agents I also had to find new ways to keep going because, well: rejection. As Tony Tulathimutte writes, “It’s called ‘Submission’ for a reason.” I got through by researching agents and making a single rule.

I researched agents by reading the acknowledgements pages of my favorite recently published books. I read interviews with agents and editors and followed their comments on social media. After learning about each one, I wrote personalized emails, noting how their represented books aligned with mine and specifying why I was interested in their representation.

Meanwhile, I geeked out and managed a colorful spreadsheet. When I sent out a query, I tracked the date. If the agent didn’t respond in 3.5 weeks, I emailed them again to check in. This was a random amount of time that kept me on a schedule. I also emailed if something happened with the manuscript, like one of the essays was published or I spoke with an editor who was interested in reading the whole book.

When I got a rejection, I followed a single rule: I tracked it on my spreadsheet and immediately queried the next two agents on my list. This kept me moving forward. It let me use rejection to do something productive and proactive, quietly affirming my belief in the work.

I did find a wonderful agent named Julie Stevenson. (Julie Stevenson!) I celebrated! (Also important for sustaining momentum!)

As we submitted the book, the rejection was tougher. But I had Julie beside me. And my husband. And my friends. Again and again, they reminded me that my worth as a person is not defined by a book. No one’s is.


At last. The book was chosen by Mad Creek Books for the inaugural Gournay Prize. Immediately, and once again, I found my relationship with the book changed. I became a reader of the book. And I had to keep writing as that reader. I could see all of these new gaps and bruises in the text. While I didn’t want it to be stale and perfect, I saw a whole new world of work to be done.

So what could I do? Go away from my family for a month and revise?

It just so happened that I learned the book would become a book the week before leaving for a writing residency at The Bloedel Reserve. During that residency, I shocked myself by not revising the book, even though I now had a deadline for doing just that. I did whatever the hell I wanted. The only rule was I had to love the act of writing. Otherwise, I had to go on walks. Eat. And watch movies.

When I finished the residency, blissed out, I had fifty pages of weird new stuff. And I had a desire to return to the book. I was ready to revise. I had entered a moment like Jenny Zhang describes—her favorite moment when writing a story: “…it comes just after I feel like I can’t finish a story. The moment when I’m not sure if I wrote a story that I want to see through to the end, or if it’s worth it, or if my idea was juvenile or not advanced or not worth continuing. And then: that feeling when suddenly I know exactly what’s supposed to happen next, the moment when I know I can get to the finish line, I can run a little more, yes, I know where I’m going. I love that energy because it comes out of feeling pretty dejected, pretty low about myself as a writer.”

Even without a writing residency I could have taken this step—and I can’t recommend it enough—to get away from the book until its absence settles into your bones like a lost love and your longing for it sends you running back to the words you’ve written in all their glittering possibility.

Whenever this feeling faded, and it did, I reminded myself: I have a real deadline and real people relying on me to meet it. I stayed focused by remembering them and by using a brightly color-coded system for revision: red sticky note meant develop further; light blue: refine this sentence; orange: confusing; and bright Kyoto green—the most important of all—marked the moments I loved, the ones that left me wondering who wrote that?

As I worked through the color-coded copy. I simultaneously felt good about my progress and miserable about not doing more. Every minute away from the manuscript felt like a moment in which it was dying. This was fear (of not finishing or maybe of finishing and still never doing what I set out to do) reaching through the life of the book and into my actual life.

In that life, I was also struggling to justify the time I needed to finish the book. Not just because I’m a parent-partner-teacher-person but because I lived in America in 2017 when the world was exposing its long harbored horrors. The fears I’d been writing about were suddenly all too real. The nagging, personal question: Is this writing any good turned into a crises of belief: What good can writing do?

I had to let that one hover like a drone so I could stay focused. At this point, I kept going by force. I willed it. It sucked.

During the difficult final weeks of revising the book, I feared the way fatigue was bleaching out the writing, making it hard to see what I was doing and what still might need to be done. So I made one new and final rule: I had to hold the book one last time, the way I might hold a beloved or any wailing baby. This was my last chance to wipe the spit off its face, but more than that, it was the last time it would just be the two of us. Soon, the book would leave my hands completely to be held by others. Without me. This was the last time we’d be together without the responsive noise of the world.

The certainty of our separation made me want to be alone with the book again in order to listen to it, to really hold each word in my mind and do my best to make sure the essays were saying what they intended.

I walked the manuscript into an empty room and held it in my lap. I read every word out loud. I listened for clunky sentences and errant commas, but, mostly, I listened to what I had made. The words, as familiar as my children, were speaking on their own. They belonged to themselves and were no longer mine. Without the clatter of expectation, it was just me and the writing, the two of us on a rainy Sunday a lot like the first Sunday when I wrote the first word—whatever that was—and after that, wrote one word at a time to reach this moment, when I turned the final page over and was faced again with a blank page. Another beginning. Invisible to the world of no, I say yes to language and its difficulties. To keep going. Because, books!

Let us write the books we love.


Behind the Book Deal: A Conversation with Kelly Sundberg, Joy Tutela, and Gail Winston

An excerpt from an interview with Kelly Sundberg, her agent, Joy Tutela, and her editor, Gail Winston, by Bre Power Eaton. This interview will appear in the fall issue of SLICE, Issue 23: Flight.

We’re publishing this excerpt now to celebrate the publication of Kelly’s debut memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, which was released early June to high acclaim. Roxane Gay writes, “It is a hell of a thing to write about brutality and suffering with strength, grace, generosity and beauty. That’s precisely what Kelly Sundberg has done in her gripping memoir about marriage and domestic violence.”

SLICE published Kelly’s first essay in Issue 10: Growing Up, and we’re thrilled to be welcoming her as a panelist at our writers’ conference this fall.

  • * * * * *

In July 2014, Kelly Sundberg was at a demolition derby in her small hometown of Salmon, Idaho. Amid this annual celebration of destruction, she received a message from a friend, telling her that an essay of hers that had been published in Guernica had been shared on Twitter by Cheryl Strayed, a writer she admires. Flattered, she figured that the essay, which had already received a larger response than she had expected, would gain even more exposure. Little did she know what would happen next.

The essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” is, as the title suggests, about an ending, but not the fairytale kind—a prince and a princess disappearing over the horizon, awash in pink and golden hues. Rather, it’s about the end of her almost decade-long marriage to the father of her son, a funny, intelligent, generous man she had fallen for quickly and deeply.