Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Number 25 Was Lucky

Some time back, I'm told one of us mentioned Shannon Cain, whose short story "The Necessity of Certain Behaviors" got rejected 24 times and then won the O. Henry Prize. (You can read an excerpt of the story here. To read other excerpts of her stories, click here.) Shannon contacted LROD recently, so we decided to feature her in our "victory over rejection" section.  Maybe this will inspire you to go out there and win an NEA grant:

When did you start writing the O. Henry Story?

I wrote the first draft of “The Necessity of Certain Behaviors” in my second semester of graduate school at Warren Wilson, working with the amazing Jim Shepard as my advisor. This was in July 2003.

What prompted your interest in it?
I’d been reading Lorrie Moore and Lydia Davis and Stacey Richter. Their voices got all jumbled in my head, I guess. Mostly “Necessity” was a response to Richter’s story “An Island of Boyfriends,” in which a woman becomes stranded on a desert island inhabited entirely by beautiful, doting men. She still manages to screw up every relationship. I admire her work very much and wanted to be in conversation with it.

How long did it take to finish a first draft?
I’m thinking it must have been about 2 weeks from the time I started it to the day I stuck it in the mail to Jim. Nothing like a deadline to get you moving.

How many revisions did you write?
I wrote eight drafts, mostly because I had a hard time with the ending. Before this became an O. Henry story and before it was accepted by the New England Review, it was the basis for my successful application to the NEA. The version read by the NEA panel had an entirely different ending than the one that was ultimately published. I’d changed it somewhere around rejection number 20, finally taking the advice of another Warren Wilson faculty member, Judith Grossman, who thought the story needed to be treated with greater care from an anthropological perspective. Over the phone I told the NEA literature director that I’d changed the ending and she inhaled in shock and dismay. At that time the story was still pending at a few places, including the New England Review. When the New England Review accepted it, I asked if their editor, Steven DiDonadio, if he would let me publish it with the ending that the NEA panel seemed to like so much. He read the old ending and said no; he liked the one I submitted much better. The two endings are wildly different from one another. When Laura Furman selected the story for the anthology I spent more time thinking about the ending and came to believe it’s really the right one for the story. It’s much happier, more hopeful. I’ve always admired writers that can pull off happy endings, so it’s especially pleasing that this one seems to succeed.

Who reads your drafts?

In grad school my teachers did, of course, but now my best reader is the magnificent Robin Black, who’s on a hot career path as we speak, with the brilliant “Harriet Elliot” in the last issue of One Story and a personal essay in Best Creative Nonfiction, among other honors. We went through the MFA program together. Fiction critique is her superpower. Best of all, she’s a dear friend. She loves me, and would never let me publish a bad story. I wish she’d been around early in my career, when I published a couple of stories that weren’t so great.

What was your overall rejection experience with the story (how many places, who saw it, who rejected, what was said, was there a pattern)?
Including contests, the story was rejected 24 times by editors (or, more likely, slush pile readers) at all my top literary magazines. The Atlantic Monthly said the plot was “too bizarre.” I’d have sent it to the New England Review sooner, but they were busy considering and rejecting other stories; “Necessity” was my fourth attempt there. I kept trying them because of the little notes of encouragement they were sending me. Mostly I didn’t get any commentary at all, just those tiny anonymous slips of paper that make you feel so special.

Did you have an agent at this point? Or did you use your cool O. Henry status to get one? I’d already had an agent for about a year or so by the time the O.Henry was announced. Her assistant had found me by trolling the NEA website and reading the sample work of the 2006 fellows. At the same time, two other agents got in touch with me...one in response to a query letter I’d sent, and another through a story I’d published in the Massachusetts Review. It was completely weird, that convergence of interest all at once. I’d been trying to find an agent for several months, getting rejected or ignored by about a dozen or so. The NEA fellowship didn’t seem to impress most of them. So I found myself with the surreal experience of interviewing three agents over the phone on the same day, trembling all the while with fear and joy. It became immediately clear that Sarah Burnes at the Gernert Company was right for me. She’s so damn smart. When we talked, she didn’t try to pitch me with hints about big advances; she just wanted to discuss my work. After we’d been talking about the stories for an hour, she quietly mentioned a few things about how well she’d done for her clients on the business end of things, which sealed the deal for me. Earlier this year she placed my short story “Cultivation” with Tin House; it just won a 2009 Pushcart. Many agents won’t try to sell stories, but Sarah is a long-term career thinker, which is one of the reasons she’s so great.

Where were you when you found out about O. Henry?
I was home alone, at the computer in the kitchen. The announcement came by email, in prose too elegant to misunderstand. I jumped around the house in sort of a panicked giddiness until I could get my partner, Karin, on the phone. Then I called Robin.

What are you working on now?
I’m writing a novel about love and politics, set in Tucson (although being the consummate New Yorker, my agent Sarah says it’s about sex and real estate). I’ve been at it for two years and the end is in sight, thank god. It’s in its fifth draft, and I’m aiming to get it to Sarah by the end of the summer.

Has your philosophy on getting published changed? Would you do anything differently now? This is going to sound ridiculous, given my experience with rejection. But here goes: getting published is not hard. Writing is hard. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a believer in persistence. But there’s another, strange side to persistence, a sort of American perspective. The Never Give Up attitude. Never give up! Follow Your Dreams! Just Do It! What we don’t hear as excellent ancillary advice is this: Work Your Ass Off! Don’t Assume You Deserve Success Just Because You’re Not Giving Up! Keep Learning! Take Risks! Be Humble! Know Yourself! Revise! Revise! Revise! But if someone had given me that advice years ago when I was first starting out, I’d have ignored it. For all I know, someone did.

Publishers are hungry for great work, fresh voices, originality, solid craftsmanship. My day job is in literary publishing. I read a lot of work by writers that should be hunkering down at their desks learning how to write rather than trying to get their early work into print. Writing stories is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Including childbirth. What I do differently now is to remember to be disciplined and rigorous, and to keep myself humbly open to learning the craft. I no longer rush to publish. I’m working my ass off to make my novel as good as it can be before Sarah starts to shop it around.

What's your view of the rejection experience now?
For a while there my goal was to get 100 rejections a year. In 2006 I made it up to 87, my personal best. Since 2004 my stories have earned 239 rejections. My rejection rate is 97.5 percent. They tell you not to take rejection personally, and I don’t. I separate myself as a person from the work that got rejected. I do pay attention to rejection, because sometimes—often—it means the work isn’t good enough.

What words of advice would you give to a writer, rejected on the journey toward getting published? Ignore punishers’ guidelines about not accepting simultaneous submissions. That’s their rule, not yours.


John Bruce said...

The "excerpt" reads like a summary. Wha?

Writer, Rejected said...

Not sure. I just added a link that brings you to Shannon's webpage listing of her stories with links to readable excerpts.

John Bruce said...

Yeah, I went to those, I guess as soon as you put them up -- she likes present tense, it seems. But especially on the Necessity story, it still reads like a summary, sorta like you were sending a pitch to an agent rather than the story itself. No style.

I guess we're not supposed to notice that, huh?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this interview -- I liked it, and hope you do it again.

As for her work, I like her flat, matter of fact voice. I see what John means about Necessity, but I think it might be worth taking a closer look at that story, if only because it's so different from most stories -- I stopped reading after a few sentences, put off by it, but that doesn't mean it's bad, just that it challenged my expectations about what a story does, and I'm in a hurry this morning, and don't have time to be challenged.

There was one story, called This is How it Begins, that I particularly liked -- I wanted to keep reading and felt a little upset that it was only an excerpt. I was amused and surprised that she called her lovers "the girl" and "the boy" and wanted to know what kind of person would do that.

John Bruce said...

"I stopped reading after a few sentences, put off by it. . ." But shouldn't that tell you something? I think it actually goes to one of B.R.Myers's insights: much contemporary fiction is written to be skimmed, not read. If you skim it, and if you somehow think the writer "deserves" to be published and don't think too hard about whether it's any good, then it's great! And deserves an O.Henry award!


Anonymous said...

Yeah, she has it tough. With all those Names helping her (such as the "amazing Jim Shepard").
I wonder what Names gave her glowing recommendations for her NEA fellowship?
Just the same old story of a hot career path.

Writer, Rejected said...

Well, but surely, somebody deserves his or her own hot literary career, right?

We are not arguing that the virtue of making it big necessarily means bad writing, are we?

I still strive to make it big and I'm not a hack. And while I like to think that my not making it big has to do with the inability of the publishing world to recognize my genius, I do not think they ONLY publish bad writers and hence will never publish me. Because why then even try? That's just way too fatalistic for me--even me.

John Bruce said...

Nevertheless, that prizewinning story is poorly written, and boring to boot (about a boring character). Seems like it's legitimate to ask why a story like this is honored.

She wrote another story in the excerpts you have that goes to one thing Darin Strauss is saying about fiction: she has a struggling single mom who runs an indoor pot plantation to pay off the credit card debt from her failed marriage (and tries to keep the knowledge of this from her three kids, I think).

Now, anyone who's read a few Ann Rules knows people don't work that way. Major breaking of the law (as in running indoor pot plantations) is the province of psychopaths, who by and large don't pay off credit card debt. (Instead, they skip town and change their names.) Shannon seems to be writing stuff from a fantasy world. Darin, as far as I can see, would urge an aspiring novelist to be writing from something like real life. Soccer moms don't raise pot in indoor plantations, sorry.

By the way, W,R, I'm wondering if the questions you've been putting in interviews are maybe a little too fawning, at least for my tastes. "Where were you when you found out. . .?" Why not read some of the drivel and ask, for instance, what the intent was in writing something that sounds more like a plot summary than a story?

I mean, there could be an aesthetic here -- but then, we've been through that lately.

Writer, Rejected said...

Ah, but that's why I have you!
Actually, they are pretty much the same questions all along. I'm not so much all about putting screws to other writers; I like Kurt Vonnegut's view that anyone who has written a novel is a literary vet who should be viewed as a comrade. I may envy someone's luck or career or contacts or trend-appropriate style of writing, but I am not so much about saying another writer's work is drivel. I'm not that confident; I know what I like and what I don't like, but there are plenty of great masterpieces that aren't to my liking, so who the hell am I? Just another Joe with an opinion.

Now, give me someone in the publishing industry, and I'll grill 'em to perfection. But those people don't generally talk to me, do they?

Writer, Rejected said...

Also the pot story ("Cultivation") won a Pushcart. Hello? And, there's only a few paragraphs in the excerpt: surely you don't judge a story without reading the whole thing? Zamm, that makes you as bad as the editors in publishers who regularly reject me. :-) I think she seems like an interesting writer. I would check out her novel and her collection of stories.

John Bruce said...

At least from my point of view, the editors who reject me basically have no reading comprehension (complain about things in the story that aren't there) or don't want to be challenged at all (hate the narrator using words like "recondite" when speaking of educated people).

It seems to me that if the author wants to be judged on a sense of reality, then even if there's a surprise ending and it's really a story about some ditzy mom fantasizing about raising her kids in a pot farm, then maybe that part of the story isn't the best choice to excerpt. If you're Toyota, you don't get to complain about folks who get turned off by an ad and refuse to sign a 3-year lease to see how good it really is.

And we're back to the question: if O.Henrys and Pushcarts are awarded counterintuitively, then this is a worthwhile question to pursue.

Vonnegut, by the way, was a hack, and he'd naturally want professional courtesy.

Anonymous said...

My point, w,r, (I'm the "Names" anon above) is that my concerns aren't with those who make all the right career moves. They have a foot up, just like the members of the Skull and Bones do. In an Insiders/Outsiders world, I'm for the Outsiders (guess why?).
Take this very well-read (though unschooled -- no classes in How to Write) guy, working a 9-5 job in Buck Tooth, Arkansas, a person who doesn't know anybody of importance. When the editor of the New England Review gives his story a fair shake, then my gripe with the way things are will be over.
Yes, w,r, you are striving. I can see that.
As for reading one's contemporaries. Lorrie Moore's name is always cropping up, as if she's some goddess or something. But if you took all she wrote and stood it up against Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, Ms. Moore's insignificance would be evident. It's not that people shouldn't read Moore, or that she hasn't done good things (she has), but people should read Stead. And they don't.
Lastly, John -- stick to your guns (I don't think you need to be told that). Call 'em like you see 'em. To be selected for the Best American anthology (and probably all the others) doesn't mean that a story is good. In fact, it can be bad. To me, this fact has significance for the state of literary fiction: Bad is being called the "best."

Writer, Rejected said...

Yes, anony, I know. I know. But sometimes I need to believe something else for a day or two. I need to think it's a little bit better than all that. Ultimately, though, when I come back to reality, I tend to agree with you concerning great literature.

However, all throughout time, people read their contemporaries who they liked and admired, even as those writers faded from importance. So, while I strive to be one that one fade (hence the 10-years-plus on my novel), I still do like to read the others and see what makes a current best seller, a current O.Henry. I am probably not ever going to be the writer who is popular, but I do think it's interesting to see what does get chosen as popular.

Anonymous said...

Do people still really use this argument about old stuff always being better???

That's a crappy and naive way to think about writing. Damn, times change, attention spans shorten. Jesus, I can't believe people working and writing in the Internet age are being compared to Tolstoy.

Buy a time machine or something, but stop bashing anything that's contemporary.

Joey said...

^ LOL.

Seriously, though, there's plenty of good stuff out there. It's always been a matter of finding it. I think what lots here react to is the perceived tree-house atmosphere of contemporary litfic. Coupled with the idea that it's far easier to convey the impression that These are the writers who matter and These are the writers you should be reading, it's easy to breed resentment among people who feel not all of these writers represent the best of what our generations have to offer.