Sunday, December 19, 2010

Our Stories App

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Our Stories application will be launching shortly on the App Store. Myself and Joseph Nalbone and CJ Moutinho have been working quite hard on the app for the past four months. A lion's share of the credit goes to the two of them. While the app is not out yet (don't worry, we'll blog all about that soon) we are required to begin setting up all the functionality to ensure that our users will be able to give us feedback.

This blog post will serve as an informal listing for our application and can be used by all Our Stories app fans to give us feedback and drop notes for issues and future development ideas.

The support email for all Our Stories issues is:
The support website for the application is here:

Wishing you all the best,

Alexis E Santi

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Q & A with Kseniya Melnik, fiction reader here at OS

Kseniya Melnik was born in Magadan, Russian Far East, and immigrated to Alaska in '98, at the age of 15.  She received her MFA from New York University in 2010 and has taught creative writing there as an adjunct professor, and online at Our Stories Literary Journal.  Her book reviews have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail and  She was recently selected as one of Granta's New Voices with her story "The Witch" and is at work on a collection of linked stories and a novel. 

Here's a short interview with Kseniya on her life and work. We're thrilled to have her with OS!

Q: You've written elsewhere about your feeling that Russian literature, the literature of the country where you grew up, holds a certain sacredness to you. Is that a fair description of it, and could you expand a little on your thoughts of writing in the Russian language?

A: Yes, as I mentioned in my interview with Ollie Brock at Granta, I feel that if I were to write in Russian, I'd be participating in direct dialogue with the likes of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Gogol, Chekhov, Bulgakov – the writers I hold up as something akin to literary prophets.  And it's not that I'd be intimidated by the weight of such literary heritage per se, so much as I'd feel more bound by the tradition I so revere. Whereas, when I write in English I feel like I'm inventing something of my own.  I feel freer to sample influences from Russian literature through my own translation, or American and English literature, or books in English by Russian or immigrants of other nationalities written in English or translated.  Somehow, English gives me access to the literary palette of the world.

 And since I started to write seriously while already living in America, surrounded by English speakers, I've never had a strong inclination to write in Russian, though I often translate words or whole paragraphs from Russian when writing. 


Q: What's next for you and your writing?


A: I am finishing up a collection of linked short stories with a working title Bering Strait Blues.  Set in eras ranging from the '50s to now, the stories center on my hometown, Magadan, and immigrants to the US from there.  I am at the stage now when I'm starting to look at the collection as a whole and address issues of pacing and character linkage, which I didn't have to worry about in individual stories.  It's a new but very exciting process for me.  I feel much more like an orchestra conductor now, rather than a musician who runs to play a violin, then a cello, then a clarinet, and so on.

*Keep an eye out for Kseniya's future work, and check out "The Witch" if you haven't already. It's an outstanding read!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Staying Current by Retelling the Past (by Kseniya Melnik)

This fall marked the arrival of new novels by two authors whose previous books I really loved: Nicole Krauss’s Great House and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I was literally counting down the days to Great House. And, of course, you had to be living under the proverbial rock in order not to get worked up about Franzen’s new brick of a book. Everyone was taking and writing about it. As fall turned into winter, if somebody with any connection to the literary establishment whatsoever confessed that they hadn’t yet cracked the tome, usually they’d offer a well-formulated and strategic explanation. It wasn’t simply that they hadn’t had the time.

Most reviewers lauded Freedom not only as brilliant, but also as very important: literarily, socially, historically, politically, environmentally (except for all those trees cut down to print so many copies of so many pages). Supposedly, it was the book our descendants would read to get the perfect snapshot – or supersize serving – of the American society in the early 21st century. Liberalism, environmental crisis, war profiteering, rock-and-roll, overpopulation, the impact of easy access to pornography on the culture are all major plot engines. Given these topics, it’s easy to see why the book seems so utterly relevant - required reading for anyone who cares about the US, where it’s been and where it’s heading.

Freedom participates directly in the current cultural and political debate.

While I admired many aspects of the novel, particularly its masterful crafting, it engaged me primarily on the intellectual level. Many would agree that the goal of literature, as that of any art form, is not only to inform us and make us think, but also make us feel things, feel more deeply, more complexly. In this department, Freedom left me largely unmoved. It also made me, as a writer, anxious about the so-called relevance of my own work, much of which is not set in present-day USA and doesn’t tackle the hot topics of the day in a head-on fashion.

Then I read Nicole Krauss’s Great House, a novel better understood through its themes (loss – an overpowering black hole among them) rather than plot (a giant writing desk passes through several people whose lives had been affected by the political upheavals of the 20th century: the Spanish Civil War, the Holocaust, the Governmental Junta in Chile, the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.) Most of the storyline is set in the past, and even when the events do take place in the present, they exhibit a dreamlike, timeless quality. I often had to leaf back to locate the exact timestamp. In the end, it didn’t really matter; I was traveling through time to arrive at a more complex emotional understanding of life.

But, the thing is, I can’t quite articulate what this understanding is, unlike I can, for example, explain the theory behind the Club of Rome or reforestation after mountaintop demolition for coal mining, to both of which Franzen devotes many chapters in Freedom. This understanding has settled in my body, in the chest, and is more intricate than something that could be summed up in neat generalizations, such as: war permanently derails innocent lives; its destructive effect spreads a wide geographical and social net and lasts for decades.

Great House immediately reminded me of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which features two narratives: in the present day Vladimir Brik, a Bosnian-American writer based in Chicago, travels back to Eastern Europe to write a story about Lazarus Averbuch, a 19-year-old Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who was shot dead by the chief of Chicago police in 1908.

W. G. Sebald also came to mind due to associative quality of Krauss’s plotting. For me, reading Sebald was one of those transformative experiences a writer can have that allows him or her see literature in a whole different dimension. In his books, I can’t separate the emotional impact from the intellectual impact: they work in perfect synergy.

Certain alchemy occurs when narrative layers set in different times are planted closely together. Krauss does this via the desk: our perception of the writer working at it in present-day New York is influenced by the desk’s tragic provenance. Sebald usually does his layering via locations: his alter ego walks around formerly grand or busy and now empty and decaying places while gathering stories about commoners as well as cultural and political celebrities of the bygone era or recollecting his own past involvement with the environs. In a passage towards the end of The Rings of Saturn, he threads the historical events on a single day, as though the day is a needle and centuries are sheets of cloth. I couldn’t resist a quote:

“Today, as I bring these notes to a conclusion, is the 13th of April 1995. It is Maundy Thursday, the feast day on which Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet is remembered, and also the feast day of Saints Agathon, Carpus, Papylus and Hermengild. On this very day three hundred and ninety-seven years ago, Henry IV promulgated the Edict of Nantes; Handel’s Messiah was first performed two hundred and fifty-three years ago, in Dublin; Warren Hastings was appointed Governor-General of Bengal two hundred and twenty-three years ago; the Anti-Semitic league was founded in Prussia one hundred and thirteen years ago; and, seventy-four years ago, the Amritsar massacre occurred… Fifty years ago to the day, British newspapers reported that the city of Celle had been taken and that German forces were in head-long retreat from the Red Army, which was advancing up the Danube valley. And finally, Maundy Thursday, the 13th of April 1995, was also the day on which Clara’s father, shortly after being taken to hospital in Coburg, departed this life.”

When I read this passage, I can’t help but feel, naively and fantastically, that if only one could somehow throw a wrench into this indifferent machinery of time (even now is not too late!), then history might have changed its course and turned out a little less tragic.

In The Lazarus Project, in addition to travel layering – Vladimir Brik’s trip to Ukraine and his hometown Sarajevo feels like a journey into the past – I noticed a threading of the dislocated, searching souls: “She smiled at me – I could have kissed her right there, those living lips, those gloaming eyes, that pale face. That’s me, I thought. That woman is me,” writes Brik, and then “It took a while to find a way out. Rora’s hair was sweat-pasted to his skull and neck, a gray oval of perspiration growing on his back…And again I thought: That’s me…She was me, Rora was me, and then we came upon the man on the bench, drooling asleep, his mouth open enough for us to see a graveyard of teeth, his hand wedged inside his pants’ waist – and he was me, too. The only one who was not me was myself.”

Another common element in Krauss, Sebald and Hemon is their characters’ obsession with retelling the stories over and over, literally writing the past into the present. In Vertigo, the narrator spends countless hours reading at the library, saying, “I happened on one thing or another that might well be worth retelling some time…” Sebald retells many stories. Hemon’s Brik retells the story of Lazarus that was left out of the newspapers’ reporting of the case in 1908. In Great House, the characters retell stories of their loved ones in flashback or their own stories in the form of addressing someone else. In retelling, they revise their past, try to find justification for their behavior, work through the guilt from their mistakes. Even Freedom doesn’t escape the lure of a story within a story. Significant plotline is delivered through one character’s therapist-encouraged autobiography, and the points where real events echo or amend this narrative are some of the most emotionally resonant in the novel.

It’s not my intention to conclude that stories within stories or writing about writing and writers are the only ways for the author to imbue the book with emotional power. I simply tried to figure out why this way of structuring the material had such a powerful effect on me as a reader.

Krauss, Hemon and Sebald’s novels make us think of the present and future in relation to the past – but not just immediate past, such as the protagonist’s childhood – but layers of past going decades, even hundreds years back. There is enough space between these layers to fill certain historical references with our own ideas of them, our own memories or stories we’d heard from our parents. In my mind, I imagine the layers bunching up like the folds of a giant accordion, now compressing, now expanding, to produce a rich sound particular to each reader.

Perhaps, this is where my deeper unarticulable “understanding of life” came from. Freedom organized complex information into appropriate compartments of my mind, and by no means do I want to diminish its achievement. Each work of art takes a small step towards conquering the chaos of the universe. But Great House, The Lazarus Project and the novels of W.G. Sebald went farther: they made my soul vibrate.

In conclusion, or perhaps to make myself feel less anxious as a writer, I propose that even books that are not set in the immediate or glaringly referenced and brand-ed present participate in today’s “national conversation” as long as they supply authentic voices. And (sorry to end on a depressing note) many stories are worth retelling over and over for history indeed repeats itself. Sebald writes in The Rings of Saturn, “history…is but a long account of calamities,” and I will echo what has been said before by many – calamities caused by humanity’s insatiable longing for a few true things and fear of and never-ending fight for what is mostly false or transient.

Happy Holidays, everybody!

Congratulations to Shaun Corley!

Shaun Corley holds a Bachelors and Masters in English from Radford University, and is a semester away from completing a degree in Library Science at the University of Tennessee. Some of his influences include Paul Auster, Raymond Carver, Richard Linklater and Jonathan Lethem.

Recently, Shaun's story "The World" was picked up for publication in the July 2011 issue of CC&D magazine. His success doesn't surprise Alexis E Santi, who workshopped this story. Here's what Alexis has to say about working with Shaun:

"Shaun worked to get this story from a short story with jagged and rough edges into a piece of art.  I was thoroughly impressed with the level of commitment he made towards ensuring that this in particular--of the three stories we worked on together--so that this story sang beautifully.  His range of writing is remarkable, he can move from the pop/hilarity of college life to the seriousness of growing up in a strict religious community.  That is damn good sign for a writer who is serious about their craft. Over the course of nine weeks we worked on three stories and I saw a total of nine different versions of those stories.  I would not be at all surprised to see his other two short stories picked up very shortly.  It was a damn pleasure working with him and I hope we can get together for some laughs soon."

And here's a short interview we had with Shaun regarding working with OS ...

Q:  At Our Stories, we consider anyone we've ever workshopped a member of Our writing community, and when a writer later succeeds with that piece, well, we'd like to think of that as an indicator that we're doing something right. What did working with OS do for you and your work?

A: Working with Our Stories, and Alexis in particular, helped me appreciate the value of revision. Prior to the workshop, revision for me was just opening the document, making some modifications and going with that. Now I know it's so much more. The workshop also pointed out what I'm doing right, and what I'm doing wrong.

Q: What's next for you and your writing?

A: I've submitted two pieces to various markets, one of which was involved in the workshop, the other a piece I wrote a few years ago and revised based on what I learned in the workshop. From there...who knows? :)

Thanks for being part of our writing community!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Our Stories Aloud: Cynthia Hawkins "Hope Before 3:15"

A graduate of the creative writing program at SUNY Binghamton, Cynthia Hawkins' creative work has appeared in publications such as Stymie Magazine, ESPN the Magazine, Monkeybicycle, Passages North, and Parent:Wise Magazine. She currently lives in San Antonio, Texas where she works as a freelance writer, contributes regularly at The Nervous Breakdown, and sometimes blogs at

Here is Cynthia reading "Hope Before 3:15," a story named an Emerging Writing Runner Up published in our Summer 2009 issue: LISTEN.

Want More Our Stories Aloud?

Chellis Ying's "Blue and Maroon"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Clean Windows and Red Wheelbarrows

Recently I was asked about making the transition from reporter to fiction writer. And I thought it was kind of funny. Changing careers from anything to novelist is pretty much how it goes. It’s only been recently with the advent of the MFA program that writing fiction has been professionalized. Prior to that, writing was respected (or disrespected) as a trade, and when it was done well, considered an art.

Writers have generally taken any number of shitty, easily replaceable jobs that let them write while getting paid, meet ‘characters,’ and never have to take work home. This pattern has become cliché enough to appear regularly in author bios as some kind of literary version of street-cred; i.e.: “He worked as a human guinea pig, a sock darner, a construction worker, and (without fail) a bartender…”

The realities of these kinds of jobs are things we don’t like to discuss until someone has broken free from the constraints of poverty and “made it.” The stereotype of the writer who is broke and struggling may seem interesting from the outside, but it’s not when you’re living it.

I was discussing this recently with my friend Charles Hale, who works as a window cleaner in Oxford, Mississippi and is writing a novel. He also wrote a completely surreal fictional column for Oxford’s “Local Voice” called What the Faulkner?

Despite getting him right after work when he was tired and cold he had a lot to say on the subject of the trades.

“I took this job exactly five years ago,” he told me. “I was running a restaurant that had already chewed me up and was in the process of spitting me out. I thought I would clean windows until I found another restaurant job, but I could tell immediately that it was a better gig. I kept it because it gave me the mental space to write. And the days that I write are better than the days that I don’t write.”

It’s safe to say Charles’ fiction is exclusively about working people. And it’s often hilarious, reminiscent of George Singleton’s writing and other novels in which people drive trucks. But he’s careful not to glorify his subjects.

“All the clichés about blue collar folks being more honest and salt of the earth are B.S.” he said. “But it’s important their stories are out in the world. I write about working people because that’s most of us. Why wouldn’t I write about them? We’re living in a time when there’s decreased value of labor. People are treated poorly, refused a living wage, their workload is increased. People are forced to stay in shitty situations for fear that the next thing, if available, might not work out. One of the characters in my novel faces this decision. He’s unable to make a living wage at his job, and because of a desire to do better for himself, leaves for one that’s gone within nine months. The shitty but steady job he’d had isn’t available anymore and neither is anything else. He is screwed either way.”

“I was in a customer’s house in the last year or two,” he told me. “It was during the recession and the price of oil was steadily increasing. She explained that oil was used in making trash bags and that in five years they would be two or three times more expensive than they are now. Her strategy for dealing with the recession, her one piece of advice, was to buy more trash bags and stockpile them. She was convinced that this was the kind of step that people needed to take.

“Come on,” I wanted to say, apart from the other reasons this is dumb “living paycheck to paycheck is real, and I don’t have the money to buy five boxes of trash bags each time I walk into Wal-Mart.” The disconnect between people who are affected day to day by the economy and those that aren’t is one of the reasons that I believe it’s important to write about working class characters.”

“I’m reminded of the William Carlos Williams poem So Much Depends,” he said. “It’s about twenty words long and anyone who reads it can visualize the poem. So it’s accessible but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. There are three concrete images in that poem, white chickens, rainwater, and a red wheelbarrow. The way I read it, the white chickens represent plant and animal life, the rainwater represents heavenly or spiritual elements, and the wheelbarrow represents human kind. And so much depends on those three groups functioning together. The wheelbarrow is an interesting choice for humans and I think William Carlos William used it because it’s a symbol of work. That for humans so much of our lives depends on how hard we work. That’s me in a nutshell. The only things that are important in my life are the things I’ve had to work for. Once you understand that, it makes you appreciate help. And it makes you more likely to help others.”

Charles Hale is working on a second draft of his novel, and on a “fictional memoir” about work. “I exaggerate,” he said of his memoir. “But I’m not the James Frey of window cleaners.” His fiction appears on the web at places like “Smokelong Quarterly” and “Fried Chicken & Coffee."

Monday, December 6, 2010

Neither Here Nor There: Writing about a Culture That Is Not Your Own

I have tried not to be one of those white, overly educated people who misguidedly attempt to "speak for the natives." Therefore, after a few years of living in Ecuador, when I wrote my first short story taking place there, I felt uneasy in my role as an outsider attempting to represent the culture intimately. The story, which will appear in the next issue of Gargoyle, is based on a real-life incident concerning a young woman who bound her stomach to hide a pregnancy, and then died giving birth unassisted. Ultimately, the fact that this situation reflects not only the condition of women in Ecuador, but in many countries where they are shamed for having a baby out of wedlock and where even minimal health care can be a luxury, eased my discomfort somewhat in writing the story. I told myself that I was not "speaking for" Ecuadorian women, but rather speaking to the global issue of reproductive rights and women's health care. 


My latest project is a novel, which tackles issues of misogyny and race. My protagonist is victimized by what I call "the cult of whiteness," a kind of fetishizing of women with light skin and Caucasian features as an expression of internalized racism. The character fetches a high price for her flesh and her actual racial and cultural makeup is of no consequence to those who profit from her, rendering irrelevant at the same time the personal and historical narrative constructing her existence.


The trafficking of women all over the globe is the slavery of our time. However, writing about this manifestation of racism and sexism puts me in a difficult position, as delving into it inevitably leads to a kind of cultural critique that could easily be viewed as an outsider's condescension. (And, in the end, how can I be sure it is not?)


The fact remains that to most American readers, Ecuador is a mere concept, a tiny blur somewhere on the map that has little meaning for them. It could be argued, therefore, that any writer who takes on the location as subject matter has the responsibility to represent accurately and to educate the reading public. Yet, this is an impossible task. The story I tell will always represent reality as I see it. My intentions could also be misunderstood and the book condemned for promoting the cult of whiteness, rather than deconstructing it.


In the end, my novel is not an anthropologic text or a socio-economic study. It is, like all writing, an exploration of unknown territory, full of inherent dangers and booby traps, along with the potential for revelation. I will have to accept the awkward position I occupy and the possibility of fallout, or else leave the story untold. 


Our Stories Aloud: Chellis Ying's "Blue and Maroon"

Chellis Ying has been published in Best Travel Writing, Mental Floss, Driftwood Literary Review, Publisher's Weekly and others. She received her MFA at the University of San Francisco and BA at Kenyon College. She resides in Los Angeles where she works for TV, writes her books, and surfs the Pacific. Her travel blog and other publications can be found at:

Here is Chellis Ying reading "Blue and Maroon," published in our Winter 2010 issue: LISTEN.

Win a free review with Our Stories

Dear OS community!

We need your stories and we want to review them for free!

Our Stories is renowned for the breadth of our contest and workshop reviews. Our reviews are page-by-page, MFA quality, diagrammed reviews where we give feedback on the entire manuscript. We know that our reviews are worth it, however, conveying our process has not always been clear to those who had not taken the leap of faith with us before.

We'd like to change that.

We are in the process of recording video tutorials of our staff members editing manuscripts and need your support to make this happen.

Here's where you come in: we would like to offer you a free critique. We would give you the same quality of review that we offer for all of our contests and workshops but record that review using video screen capture software of us working through the manuscript in real time. We would post the video on our website, blog and YouTube.

Your critique will include:
-- "Opening Thoughts" section where we give you feedback about how the story opens and the immediate impact that your story has on the reader.
-- Line edits that give you feedback on grammar, awkward phraseology, word order, etc.
-- Page-by-page comments regarding your dialogue, plot, logical flaws, and overall story development.
-- "Closing Thoughts" section where we give you overall thoughts on the story and a brief plan for revision.

To protect your story & identity:

-- We will black out the title and your name from the story.
-- We will cut out three to four pages of the story in the final video cut so that the story cannot be read in its entirety.
-- Your story will not be presented in any publishable format so you will be able to use these revisions for another draft and sent it out to for consideration at other journals.
--We will provide you the edited final draft of your story for free, in a Word and PDF version.

If you are interested in this mutually beneficial process we would like to hear from you.

Send the Editor in Chief of Our Stories, Alexis E Santi an email at and let us know you're interested. Stories should be under 5000 words and not be novel excerpts.

We'd like to do 7-10 video tutorials by the end of February.

Thank you.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Congratulations to Lyle Roebuck ~ recommended reading: "The Crab" @ The Arkansas Review

Lyle Roebuck's story "The Crab" will appear in the Winter 2010 issue 

Since we've worked with Lyle in the past on this story, we can't help but to raise our fists 
with him in a triumphant, "Hell, yeah!"

Here's a short Q & A we had recently with Lyle.

Q:  At Our Stories, we consider anyone we've ever workshopped a member of Our writing community, and when a writer later succeeds with that piece, well, we'd like to think of that as an indicator that we're doing something right. What did working with OS do for you and your work?

A: Good writing can only be improved through tireless revision and thoughtful editorial feedback; the latter is what Our Stories offers to those who submit. If, as a writer, you are open to considering objective criticism, your fiction will be better for it.

Q: What's next for you and your writing?

A: I'm sitting on a collection of about a dozen stories, plus a novel, all written over the past eight years. In 2011-12 I'm taking a sabbatical from my teaching job to travel and concentrate on writing.

Thanks for being part of our writing community.

*And don't forget to support fellow writers by picking up this issue. Here's some info 
from the above site:

"Single issues cost $7.50. Make checks payable to Arkansas State University Foundation with 'Arkansas Review' on the memo line. Address correspondence to Arkansas Review, POBox 1890, Arkansas State University, State University, AR 72467."

Friday, December 3, 2010

Recommended Reading: Peter Orner's "Lincoln" @ Conjunctions: A Web Forum of Innovative Writing

Sheila and I would drive up and down Sheridan Boulevard and look at those houses. Once she pointed to one of them and said, in all seriousness, "Who would we be if we lived there?" 

Appearing in Conjunctions, Peter Orner's "Lincoln" captures a somber sense of loss with a final, rising epiphany. The description of Lincoln, Nebraska, and a sprawling, overwhelming highway system contribute to the piece's dominant, unified impression of grappling with some past, dashed opportunity.

The piece, two paragraphs, immediately establishes a powerful, trustworthy voice with poignant prose.

Check it out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010