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On Meeting Writers

ISSUE:  Summer 2005

It’s after midnight, and I’m tapping on the murky aquarium glass to see if the two scrawny lobsters inside are, as the sign promises, “LIVE.” We’re in some dive a few blocks from Ground Zero, and John McNally and Tom Bissell are playing pool on a purple table. The fluorescent balls and their chalked-up hands glow weirdly under the black light. Dean Bakopoulos is shouting something into the ear of Morgan Meis, who drinks and nods but never takes his eye off the pool table. But me—I can’t stop looking at this giant tank marked “LobsterZone,” an exact duplicate of those games in every Denny’s across America, where you try to pick up a stuffed animal with a metal claw for a dollar a chance, only here the prize is a live lobster. “What do you do if you win?” I ask no one in particular—and get no answer. “I mean, what are you going to do in a bar with a live lobster?”

I doubt this is what anyone pictured when we got the thrilling news that the Virginia Quarterly Review had been nominated for two National Magazine Awards in General Excellence (under 100,000 circulation) and Fiction. The Ellies, as they’re nicknamed, are the Pulitzers of the magazine world. Only twenty magazines nationally received more than one nomination, and others with two included places like Harper’s, Newsweek, National Geographic, and Esquire. So we resolved to go New York and take our nominated fiction writers, Bakopoulos, McNally, and James P. Othmer (who, in truth, lives only about an hour outside the city). We met up earlier that night with Tom Bissell, Morgan Meis, and Joe Pacheco, a New York-based team we were sending (and have since sent) to Vietnam to cover the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Bissell’s story, “Death Defier,” published in our Summer 2004 issue, was also selected recently by Michael Chabon for the next Best American Short Stories. which seemed like a good enough excuse for everyone to get together, one more thing to celebrate.

Since we’ve returned from New York—empty-handed, I’m afraid—everyone has asked what we thought of the National Magazine Award ceremony. Like anyone else, I was awed by the scale of it, the sheer glitz and self-important sprawl of it all. And, yes, when Martha Stewart took the stage—even though publishers are specifically instructed not to—I, too, was craning my neck to see if she was sporting an ankle monitor or not. And yet, the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, the corny speeches about how much everyone loves their job, the standing in the losers’ line waiting for our certificate while two staffers from Vanity Fair complained that their defeat was outrageous, just outrageous!—these were not the highlights of the trip, certainly not what made the journey worth making.

And trying to explain why has reminded me of the peculiar fascination readers and writers with whom I’ve spoken seem to have about our more celebrated authors. What is Toni Morrison really like? they wonder. How on earth did you every get a hold of Salman Rushdie? The issue you’re holding now is more star-studded than perhaps any other we’ve published under my editorship. It’s hard to imagine a more alluring line-up than Gabriel García Márquez, Cormac McCarthy, and Isabel Allende, and yet I’ve never met these people, never even spoken to them—just as I’ve never spoken to Toni Morrison or held a long conversation with Rushdie. Writers of that stature have every possible kind of go-between—agents, rights managers, personal assistants. I don’t blame them, and I certainly don’t begrudge their distance. The work that these authors share with us so that we may share it with you is all that I ask. Yet, the strange result is that my excitement with any new issue rarely centers on the writers who have achieved this level of celebrity. Instead, I find the greatest pleasure in publishing new writers—people whose work we’ve scooped from the slush pile and feel moved by, people we hope we can help.

I’ve taken to using Jim Othmer as my example, because his story seems so remarkable, yet so emblematic. When we accepted “The Futurist,” Othmer’s cover letter cited two smaller publications as his only credentials. He was in his forties with several unpublished novels under his belt. By any yardstick, he was a struggling writer—but we saw such energy, intelligence, verve, compassion, and wit in “The Futurist” that none of that mattered. In the months after the story appeared, I got occasional e-mails from Jim, asking advice on agents, then my opinion of editors. Before long, he had a sweetheart deal with Doubleday to publish a novel with the Futurist as its central character. He wrote me a note, saying, “I really feel that this wouldn’t have happened so quickly, if at all, if you hadn’t taken a chance on my story.” Of course, it wasn’t a chance; it was a great story, and we all felt it as soon as we read it.

In every issue, I find there’s something that gives me that same tingle of excitement. I feel that way about Brock Clarke’s story “The Ghosts We Love,” a hilarious and heartbreaking story about how tragedy can divide a family even as it entwines and entangles them forever. As soon as I heard this narrator, I knew this story was a winner. He’s wry, too smart for his own good, and endlessly searching. And, for all their odd quirks, I felt as if I knew each of the supporting characters as soon as they appeared on the page. I feel equal excitement about Natasha Trethewey’s poems. I think that Trethewey’s next book of poems, Native Guard, is going to be a major book. Not just a breakout for her, but a significant contribution. I take a great deal of pride in having two of those poems in this issue to go with the one we published in Spring 2004. And these are but two examples. There are seven authors in this issue alone who have yet to publish a book of their work. Read them, and I think you will share the exhilaration I felt when I read these pieces for the first time.

Maybe then you’ll understand why the highlight of the New York trip for me occurred that night at the empty dive near Ground Zero, but it wasn’t shooting pool and definitely not eyeballing the poor lobsters. I was sitting at the table, away from everyone else and reading the opening page of Martin Preib’s essay, “The Wagon.” Bissell had slipped it to me earlier that evening, explaining that it had been written by a friend of his college roommate—not usually very promising. But, right away, there it was: a recognizable and remarkable new voice, someone who had spent years as a reader and working at his craft as a writer but never published in a national magazine. It was dark and morbidly focused, and yet the prose sang. Best of all, I had a place to share it—and you’ll find it here, in this issue. This is the real thrill, the rare privilege, I have as an editor.

When I spoke to Preib by phone for the first time, he was calling from a copy shop in Chicago while on break from his normal duties as a cop. He wanted to know who else would be featured in this issue and, when I mentioned Gabriel García Márquez, his voice almost trembled. “I’ll be in the same issue with Márquez?” he asked and seemed to think it over for a minute. “That’s amazing.” I assured him that they belong in the issue together—and they do. Of course, I love bringing you, our readers, work by Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners, but it’s the unheard voices, the writers whose lives we can change by offering our support and interest, who I’m most honored to have met, whether in person or on the page. I hope you will take the time to get to know them too.


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