“When reading a story critically, evaluatively, it’s difficult to get lost in the narrative and experience an emotional shift. I know a story has got it right when, despite myself, I stop analyzing and start feeling transported, immersed in the story’s reality.”
What made you decide to be a reader for NER, and how long have you been on staff?
Participating in writing workshops taught me how much I love engaging with work that has not fully solidified yet via publication. The challenge of determining merit in a story that is first seeing the light of day is exciting, and there is an intimacy in receiving the words directly from the author. I knew I wanted to continue evaluating these freshly incubated stories and find a way of delivering them to readers who could fall in love with them as I did. Reading for NER allows me to be a part of the that process of discovery. I’ve been on staff for a year and half and the thrill of finding resonant stories produced by talented writers keeps me coming back for more.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do when you’re not reading for NER?
When I’m not reading for NER, or working on my own writing, or reading for pleasure, or reading about the craft of writing, I’m arguing with my sons over their iPad usage. Just kidding. (Not really.) We’re fortunate enough to live in the beautiful state of Arizona so when we have the chance, we pile into the car with our one-year-old lab and explore the diverse natural landscapes on offer. The pine-scented Coconino Forest and the glorious red cliffs of Sedona are two of my family’s favorites.
What is your reading process like? What do you look for in a submission?
If I come across a story that I believe has potential, I will usually wait a few days and then come back to it for another read through. That second (sometimes third) read often either confirms the story’s assets or reveals its fault lines. It then takes a few more close reads before I can formulate my impressions of the story into a concise critique.
At the most fundamental level, I look for stories that move me, stories that elicit an emotional response. In order for a story to achieve this simple goal, many rather complex elements must come into play: the prose must be fresh and lyrical enough to engage but not so overwrought as to distract, the characters, dialogue, and plot require precision and originality to attain the authenticity necessary for emotional investment, and the story as a whole must reveal something about the world that is undeniably true and yet so wholly unexpected as to have impact. No easy feat!
When reading a story critically, evaluatively, it’s difficult to get lost in the narrative and experience an emotional shift. I know a story has got it right when, despite myself, I stop analyzing and start feeling transported, immersed in the story’s reality. It’s a lot like the Magic Eye books of my childhood; first, all you see are the component parts—the drips and drabs of pixelated paint—and then all of a sudden, perception alters and there it is! A 3D image of an elephant balancing on a ball. The assorted parts fade entirely, supplanted by a new reality. The magical act of transcendence.
Of the pieces you’ve read at NER—whether in the magazine or among the submissions—which was your favorite or most memorable to you personally?
“I Love You, Dr. Rudnitsky” by Avigayl Sharp (Vol 41.2) is one of those stories I’ve pressed my friends, family, neighbors, and random woman sitting next to me at the hair salon to read. It’s dark comedy done spectacularly right. The story stands on its own merit as a skillful example of a voice driven narrative, but my attachment to the story is likely also due to personal resonance; the story’s exploration of how the Holocaust’s traumatic legacy reverberates through the generations resonated with me as I have witnessed the phenomenon’s bitter effects in my own family.
I also think often of “A Cool, Dry Place” by Tyler Sones (Vol 41.4), a story whose ending is so tormenting, the final sequences have imprinted themselves indelibly on my brain.
Have you ever read a submission that later got selected for publication?
Yes! I believe the story is still in revision stage, but I was fortunate enough to first read “Past Perfect” a beautifully told story by Alice Greenway about an NGO volunteer teaching English to an Afghani refugee family. Look for it in a future issue of NER! [Note: this novella will be published in 42.3, fall 2021.]
How has reading for NER influenced your own writing/creative pursuits?
Reading stories critically and training myself to identify and articulate a story’s weakness has certainly helped me recognize and try to avoid those same weaknesses in my stories. In my own writing, I have a habit of indulging in “clever” prose. Reading similar prose in other people’s work, unblinded by emotional investment in the work, is an incisive lesson in how such writing can weaken the narrative. Conversely, I draw tremendous inspiration from the authors who submit works of great ambition. Their reach inspires me to demand more of my own stories.
What do you read for pleasure? Is there something you’re reading at the moment that you would recommend?
I’m on a serious Margaret Atwood kick at the moment. I enjoyed her oeuvre as a teenager but reading her novels and short stories as an adult has given me a much greater appreciation for her talent in crafting story and her ability to blend all the elements into something that is irresistibly captivating. For lovers of short fiction with a classic narrative structure, you can do no better than “Stone Mattress,” and for those who want to be engrossed for a lengthier stretch, “Alias Grace” is the historical novel perfected.
A new favorite of mine is Sigrid Nunez who garnered much acclaim and well-deserved attention with her recent novels, The Friend and What Are You Going Through. Both novels are weighty explorations on death, aging, and the limits of friendship, delivered in the intimate tone of whispered confidences shared over mugs of hot cocoa.
NER‘s staff readers, all volunteers, play an essential role in our editorial process and in our mission to discover new voices in contemporary literature. A full list of staff readers is available on our masthead.