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 Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, and Beth Piatote.
This year, four writers participated in the round table:
- Heather Aruffo (“Force, Mass, Acceleration” from The Southern Review)
- Mackenzie McGee (“Re: Frankie” from Porter House Review)
- Alberto Reyes Morgan (“Salt” from Michigan Quarterly Review)
- Stanley Patrick Stocker (“The List” from Kestrel)
Can you introduce readers to who you are as a writer and what interests and informs your writing?
Aruffo: I have a pretty varied immigrant/ multinational background- my Dad was Mexican with Italian and Russian roots, and I’ve lived in a lot of different places inside and outside the US. I have a BS in chemistry and I still work in the sciences, so I approach my subject matter with a global outlook and a pretty strong interest in how systems of power work in the world and what drives them. I really have a scientists drive to do research and to collect as much “data” as I can while I’m writing. Getting to the bottom of an issue and trying to understand it as best as I can from as many different angles as possible while still being mindful and ethical is really important to me. I think the most powerful thing about fiction and creative writing in general is that it allows you to ask greater questions about the world and explore the grey areas and uncertainties that no amount of hard data can explain. I try to make sure that my work is always rooted in the personal, whether for me or for my characters, but in a way that speaks to greater universal themes. Force, Mass, Acceleration I think is pretty evocative of a lot of themes and obsessions that appear again and again in my work.
McGee: Delight is a really important part of the writing process for me. I’m most delighted when I give myself a challenge—a certain form, a perspective or even a word count—and I manage to pull it off. My first question when I sit down to write is always, why this story? What’s in here that hasn’t been done yet? The answer makes the story worth pursuing.
On a thematic level, my work is interested in power, gender, pop culture, and absurdity. Sometimes I think of my stories as thought experiments. Recently I’ve gotten very interested in queer theory, and I’m excited by the way that speculative fiction, by playing with basic assumptions about reality, can “queer” the world around us and illuminate queer experiences.
Reyes Morgan: I tend to write at night and often base my writing on dreams. Just last week I had a dream where a hamburger was eating me. Right there, bam, that’s a story. I’m currently at work writing it from the hamburger’s point-of-view. I’m not sure if the buns will have their own point-of-view though, maybe it’ll be just the patty that can talk. The real question is: beef or turkey burger?
Stocker: I’m not sure writers are always aware of what interests inform their writing, but one preoccupation seems to be an exploration of what it means to be human. Are we truly spiritual beings in the midst of an earth experience and vice versa as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and others say? If so, what does that look like? What are the tensions in being both of the spirit and of the earth? What are the beauties inherent in both? The terrors? On the one hand, it would seem like a terrible idea to be both given the apparent – inherent? – tensions between spirit and flesh. Whose ideas was this?! you want to ask. On the other, I like to explore the wonders that are available to us. The great pleasures like art, nature, love, friendship that we are capable of. These are the things I like to explore – all within the context of being an African-American/Mexican man.
What is your writing background?
McGee: Growing up in Minnesota, my teachers and parents really nurtured my imagination. I didn’t know any full-time artists, so I never imagined that I could be one, as much as I dreamed about it. I was always good at school, and I had every intention of becoming an OB-GYN until I took my first creative writing class in college. All the things I’d been pushing down, my passion, my desire to make beautiful things, spilled out. It was very messy and upsetting and probably the best thing that could have happened to me.
Now I’m in the last year of my MFA at Arkansas, and I’ve only recently gotten comfortable calling myself a writer. I kind of feel like I found a unicorn, and every morning I look at it and go, wow, this isn’t a dream after all. Of course, part of the reason it feels like a fairy tale is because it often requires a lot of privilege to get where I am now. I’m working through those ideas in some of my writing right now: privilege and fantasy, what’s possible for who and why.
Reyes Morgan: I spent quite some time banging out reviews of bottled water for one of the famous water rating sites. On certain days I had to go outside and shake-it to music while wearing a bright red-yellow Chapulín Colorado-like costume, you know the one I’m talking about, he was the inspiration for Bumblebee Man on the Simpsons. So, I’d spin a sign to some jams and promote the site. When I had to be in the office I would to tell my bosses, White Mike and Papasquiaro, that I was hard at work, but in reality I was hunched over in a bathroom stall scribbling stories.
Stocker: I was one of those kids who knew he wanted to be a writer from a very early age. When I was a boy, we had a set of The Book of Knowledge reference books and they included entries on all the arts and sciences including stories and biographies of writers many of whom, I seem to recall, were lawyers as well as writers. (I still have a set of the books and still enjoy reading them.) Those volumes and other books fired my interest in writing and I never questioned whether I would be a writer. It was just a matter of when. I went on to become a lawyer who writes fiction and poetry. Or maybe a better way to put it is that I’m a fiction writer/poet who supports himself by practicing law.
Aruffo: After college, I got my MFA in Fiction from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, so I spent a lot of time hanging out in a cabin with no running water in the middle of the woods while it was -20 outside finishing my first novel. I read a lot, and I’m constantly breaking down pieces for structure and themes, and trying to improve my craft. Maybe it’s the chemist in me that’s obsessed with structure and is always trying to break things down into their smallest possible component parts to understand them. I’m a regulatory medical writer- the person who writes up clinical trial data and other documentation for the FDA – at a biotech company in my day job, and I worked as a medical writer between my BS and my MFA, which has weirdly taught me a lot about drafting in an organized way, and just generally keeps my writing skills sharp. It’s very data driven writing, and not at all creative, which I like because it leaves me with a lot of gas in my creative tank after my workday ends. Post MFA I’ve found going to summer workshops very helpful, and I keep in close contact with other friends who are writers to exchange work. If I see an affordable online class or class run locally I’ll sign up too, just to get new perspectives on craft. I’m always trying to learn new things and push my craft to be the best it can be.
How did this story come to be? What was the process behind it?
Reyes Morgan: I found myself in Detroit, wintertime. I was outside watching snow glow in the moonlight. Then in that glow I saw this image of the border crossing between Mexico and the USA, where I was raised, suddenly I was sweating even though it was well below zero, I could feel the desert sun.
One of the first things I wrote was the ending, again based in the border, and I sort of worked backwards. It took me a year and a half to crawl back to the beginning. I kept thinking, what would lead somebody to that moment, those last lines of remembrance, and so unfolded the rest of the story. I honestly don’t think I understood who the characters were until well into year of rewriting.
Stocker: My partner and I were looking to hire a new babysitter for our then 3-year old and I was feeling anxious about entrusting our son to a new person and my mind went to a worst case scenario. Then I thought, Oh, that would make an interesting story. My second thought was that I couldn’t possibly write such a story lest I somehow jinx my family. But in the end, I thought, writing about things that scare them is one of the things writers do. After I completed the story that particular anxiety pretty much disappeared which reminds me of the line that Melville wrote to Hawthorne after he completed MOBY-DICK: “I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” I think when writers write what demands to be written there can be certain psychic as well as artistic benefits.
When I thought about structuring the story I immediately thought of Hemingway’s story “Hills Like White Elephants.” I vaguely remembered how part of the story’s power was due to the way some central issue was hinted at but not addressed directly. Then I went back and read it again and saw that the central issue seemed to be the question of whether the woman would have an abortion, but it’s never mentioned explicitly. In my story, I wanted the death of the daughter to have that same kind of power by virtue of not being fully revealed. I wanted to show not the death itself, but the effect it has on the husband and wife and their marriage in the same way that the unspoken thing has an effect on Hemingway’s characters.
Incidentally, midway through the drafting process, I also tried a structure in which I listed 10 numbered works of literature and music spaced throughout the story. That didn’t quite work so I eventually went back to the original structure. But omitting the details of the daughter’s death was something I wanted to do from the very beginning. Maybe there was a bit of self-protection there too. No parent wants to focus too much on the worst case scenario.
Aruffo: This story took me about a year and a half to write and it was originally something I saw as an essay. I started it at the very end of 2017, and it went through probably four or five drafts before it was ready to submit. I hand wrote my first draft and then showed it to my thesis adviser, then revised it again. I left it in the drawer for a while, because I was trying to finish my novel, but then I gave a draft of it to a friend in early 2019. He read through it and told me I’d gotten a lot of my Balkan history wrong, so I ended up going back in May of 2019, reading 2 or 3 books on Balkan history and rewriting all of those portions. In all, I realized I had read probably 600 pages of books that got turned into 10 sentences sprinkled throughout the piece. Digging into Ana’s story, and giving her story an arc when there’s so little information about her was also a challenge. I had to think hard about what she as a character would be thinking and feeling and how to best show that progression, with the historical events as a backbone so that I knew where in time we were. The medical school scenes were a really helpful way to fill in those gaps and give Ana things to do to show her mental state without referring back to the Balkan Wars. I started submitting the piece in May of 2019, and it was accepted by the Southern Review in April of 2020. It was rejected by 35 journals before it finally found a home.
McGee: Often I’ll start with an image or a premise, then connect it to a broader question or phenomenon I’ve been thinking about. The story comes from that marriage of abstract and concrete. For “Re: Frankie,” I came up with the idea of the ReJuve machine first. I was also thinking a lot about personhood and womanhood, and that snowballed into questions about clones, individuality, how reproductive pain is so often shoved aside.
Everything sort of came together when I decided to try the epistolary form. It was a major challenge being limited to one point of view, especially because the point of view character in “Re: Frankie” isn’t the most interesting person on the page. But that’s something the form allowed me to dig into: what happens when someone thinks they’re at the center of someone else’s story? How could anyone be so myopic and still think they’re a nice guy?
To be honest, when I was writing this story four years ago, I was at a point in my life where I felt like I had to prove myself every single day, or else my “writer card” would be taken away. I wrote because I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t believe I was one, not the real deal, anyway. It was a painful process, and I think a lot of pain came through in the story. Since then I’ve been writing and reading and having long after-workshop conversations with my incredibly-supportive cohort, and I sort of wish I could go back and hug that version of myself. Of course she was a writer! She wrote! That’s all it takes.
What can we expect from you in the future?
Stocker: I’ve recently completed revisions on a novel that was two decades in the making. I’m shopping it around to agents. A 13-year-old boy goes on a harrowing search for his father who has abandoned him in despair following the sudden death of his mother. It’s the father quest of antiquity updated to early 20th-century Mississippi. I hope you’ll see that in the future. Right now, I plan on working on a new short story that’s been clamoring to be written.
Aruffo: I’m working on a collection of personal essays right now tentatively titled “Work-Life” about working in the pharmaceutical industry, my relationship with my Dad and his death from cancer, globalization, Latinx identity and capitalism. It’s sort of science writing meets travel writing meets cultural criticism in an essay collection, but through the lens of the pharmaceutical industry and global science specifically. I have plans to start a near future sci-fi novel set in the arctic sometime soon; my fiction often veers into the speculative realm, since it’s such a great sandbox for playing around with big geopolitical ideas. I’ve also been working on some realist short fiction set in Alaska. They’re fun to write and a nice change of pace from essay writing. If you work at the FDA, well, you’ll be seeing a lot more of my work a lot sooner than anyone else… kidding!
McGee: I recently finished the first draft of my short story collection, so that’s exciting. Mostly I’m focusing on my MFA thesis. It’s a novel based on my short story, “Another Castle,” which is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review.
Reyes Morgan: I’m currently at work on a novel about a vato (guy) that goes to New York, and also I got that hamburger story cooking.