Meet five writers collected in the ‘PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2019’ anthology

Every year, PEN America releases an anthology of the best short stories written by first time published writers. This year, a dozen writers were selected from a wide-ranging array of literary journals – both in print and online. They were judged and selected by Danielle Evans, Alice Sola Kim, and Carmen Maria Machado.

I asked five of the collected writers get-to-know-you questions to better introduce them to readers.

The writers participating in the roundtable are:

Can you introduce readers to who you are as a writer and what interests and informs your writing?

A.B. Young: I write the stories I want to read and hope that other people like them. I like when form and content converge. I like fairytales and the uncanny. I like coming of age stories. I like queer content and stories written by queer people. I like recontextualising and repurposing and remixing ideas and words and images.

Jade Jones: I remember growing up how rare it was for me to read literature where I could see myself on the page and the lengths my parents would go through to find stories with black characters who were created with love and thoughtfulness. I typically write about women of color, people with disabilities, pop culture, and generational divides. I hope the characters I create allow more people to feel seen and understood. In a world that’s pretty determined to marginalize certain identities, I hope my work is accessible to people who sometimes feel out-of-place when they approach ‘canonical’ literature. 

Sarah Curry: As a writer, I like to utilize the surreal, be intentional and even poetic on the line level, and create funny emotionally vibrant characters. I also absolutely love learning new things. One of my favorite things to do as I write is to research some detail and follow it down the rabbit hole. In The Rickies, I learned all about factories that make targets for shooting ranges and in another story I learned a lot about mining or for another birds, tsunamis, and classical music. I’ve always wanted to be about five different things when I grow up and writing lets me do that. 

Tamiko Beyer: I’m a poet and writer of all kinds of prose.  My creative projects often explore the body, particularly in relationship to queerness, gender, race, and the climate crisis. I publish a monthly newsletter, Starlight & Strategywith essays about living life wide awake and shaping change. I also make my living as a social justice communications writer and strategist—writing truth to power, as I like to say.

Pingmei Lan: I came to writing late in life so I suppose I am still trying to answer that question. 

As a child, I’d listen to classical Chinese novels on the radio when I was supposed to be napping or doing homework or play sports. There was a shortage of (certain kinds of) books so I tried to read whatever I could get my hands on at the neighbors or friends’ houses. 

After I immigrated to the US, I didn’t read anything for several years. I watched a lot of TV to improve my English and worked long hours at various jobs. But I’ve always enjoyed listening to the way people talk. Sometimes I would replay these conversations in my head to see if I can keep it going, make it sharper, funnier, or darker. 

I’m interested in other art forms and sometimes I can find a tangible thread that connects the mood of a painting to a piece of music or a story. Maybe there is a tonal variation or the way a reader/listener/viewer would respond to it.

What is your writing background?

Sarah Curry: I was lucky as a high schooler to go to a performing arts high school where I actually got to spend two hours a day writing. At that time I didn’t really think that being a writer was what a real person did. Even though I loved writing, being a “writer” felt very removed from the real world. Someone told me at that time if you can do anything else besides write, do that. That was terrible advice for me and probably most aspiring writers. Of course we can do other things besides write. And there are things we must do. There aren’t writers with a capital W who starve together in a garret and their words come directly from their enfeebled bloodstream. I firmly believe that everyone has stories to tell and more people should be telling them. That’s probably the anthropologist (I have a MA in anthropology) and English teacher in me. I received my MFA in Fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University, which was a wonderful experience. It was really great to write and learn in a community. 

Tamiko Beyer: I got my MFA in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis. I’ve published a collection of poetry, We Come Elemental, with Alice James Books and two chapbooks of poems. My poems and essays appear, among other places, in Black Warrior ReviewDenver Quarterly, Georgia Review, Literary Hub, the Rumpus, Hyphen, Dusie.

Pingmei Lan: A few years after I settled in the US, I started reading fiction again. I knew I wanted to write but it took some time for me to get started. I took a few writing classes and eventually I earned an MFA in fiction from Pacific University. 

I also regularly attend a few local poetry readings and writing critique groups.

Jade Jones: I’m very lucky to have a mother who is an incredibly talented poet and has always encouraged me to pursue my love of writing. Both of my parents have been so supportive of my writing and never told me it wasn’t the path for me, so I’m very grateful for that. Because of them, I kept writing even when I became very discouraged in college and in graduate school. I’ve been writing since I was very young, but I’ve been fortunate enough to study creative writing formally since undergrad with many professors who pushed me to try my best. 

A.B. Young: I was that kid who always told adults I wanted to be an author when I grew up. I’ve been writing stories my whole life. After high school in Western Australia, I moved to the Bay Area to complete a Bachelor of the Arts in Writing and Literature at California College of the Arts.

How did this story come to be? What was the process behind it?

Jade Jones: “Today, You’re a Black Revolutionary” was inspired by Bree Newsome who removed a Confederate flag from its pole on June 27, 2015. I still remember watching her on TV and how much pride I felt seeing a black woman say, I’m tired of this and I’m going to do something about. Her courageous act had been bouncing around in my head for months but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it as a story. Then, my first year in Iowa, I was watching a documentary and Stokley Carmichael said the quote, “You tell the Klan all the scared niggers are dead” and it hit me that I wanted to explore a way Bree Newsome’s recent protest could intersect with this quote from the past.      

I wrote the story when I was feeling very discouraged and frustrated with my writing. A quote and a climatic scene aren’t enough for a whole story but they were definitely my two main inspirations. I sat for a few hours and wrote a first draft. The piece was workshopped, and I felt stuck again so I put it aside before revising it some more. The completed, polished story you see today is because of the amazing guidance and help from the editors at The Rumpus, especially Dennis Norris II, and Yuka Igarashi, the editor for the PEN America Best Debut Short Stories.

A.B. Young: “Vain Beasts” started as a writing assignment while I was at CCA. It was a prose poem, inspired by the epigraph of the story. From there, it took on a life of its own: building on itself over five years. Usually, I labor over what my ideas are supposed to look like on the page, but ‘Vain Beasts’ poured from me in bursts and gasps.

Tamiko Beyer: I spent the first week of 2014 on a snow-covered island off the coast of Maine, reading, going for walks in the frozen landscape, cooking, looking out at the stars, and writing whatever I felt like writing—which turned into the first draft of “Last Days.” (The piece that is published in the anthology is the first of four parts.) And then I revised it, re-wrote it, and tinkered with it for four years. I wrote it as a prose/hybrid poem, and submitted it to Black Warrior Review as such. They accepted it and suggested they publish it as fiction. Since I have never felt tied to genre, I was happy to make my fiction debut with them.

Pingmei Lan: Some stories live in my head for a long time before I write a single word. And when it’s ready I’d hear a character’s voice. For this one, the narrator told me this funny story about her name, and she talked a mile a minute so I wanted to write it down. It started almost as an anecdote about a misunderstanding. Then she talked about her friend, the old maid, who had a lover that died, and I realized there was a story here. The setting for this story is a familiar one, as I’d written a couple of other stories in this setting. Some of the minor characters, like the popsicle lady has a more significant role in these other stories.

When the story was accepted at Epiphany, Tracy O’Neil, the editor-in-chief at the time, really helped sharpen this story and made it much stronger. And it was wonderful working with her to get to that point.

Sarah Curry: I put pen to page on this story when my daughter was three weeks old and I had absolutely no plans or intention for what I was about to write. All I knew was that I’d left my daughter to walk to a coffee shop and I better write something while I had the chance. What came was a younger voice, a so-not mom voice. It wasn’t guarded. It was weird and honest. I’m not sure if I wrote that piece because I needed a space free of spit up; or there’s freedom in sleep deprivation; or or if there’s some truth to birth being a trauma that can awaken the past for you. Heck, maybe I just missed my girlfriends. I’ve been part of a group of 4 best friends twice in my life and there’s a power to it. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else thinks. You might as well be your own town. I wrote the first three pages in an hour and then let it sit. A few months later I wrote 3 pages just as quickly. I think I finally finished a first draft in one sitting several months later when I needed something for workshop. I didn’t ever revise the voice much, but I did work on how time worked in the piece and of course there was a moment where I thought I am never going to find a way to get a reader to comprehend a piece where everyone is named the same thing. I persevered.

What can we expect from you in the future? 

Tamiko Beyer: I have another collection of poetry from Alice James Books coming out in 2021, which includes all four sections of Last Days, and in fact has the same title. I’ll keep publishing Starlight & Strategy essays. And I hope to turn this story into a novel some day soon. 

Pingmei Lan: More stories I hope. I am hesitant to talk about things in progress, but I do have a lot more stories to tell both in this setting and in other parts of the world.

Sarah Curry: I have a short story, “Paterfamilias,” in Oxford American‘s fall issue that is rooted both in my Southern Italian heritage and the years I spent working in the immigrant community. I’m also nearly done with a final draft (fingers crossed) of my first novel, The Bones of Stars, about a family in Kentucky whose daughter goes missing on the day the Challenger explodes. I’m also working on a new short story that is about fire walking, among other things. 

A.B. Young: Plenty more stories about fairytale nonsense, hopefully some Young Adult novels, and zines and collages galore.

Jade Jones: I try to work on two or more projects at a time so when I get stuck, I can bounce to another one. I’m always writing short stories whenever ideas pop in my head, so hopefully look out for some of those and possibly a longer work as well.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Follow the authors on Twitter: A.B. Young, Jade Jones, Sarah Curry, Tamiko Beyer and Pingmei Lan.

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