“…on a lucky day you read a story that truly deserves an audience. And if you can help it find that audience, you feel a little glow.“
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do when you’re not reading for NER?
I started out in Oklahoma City, born and raised there. In my twenties and thirties I moved around quite a bit, the way people who have energy and ambition tend to do, Texas, Georgia, etc., for graduate school and work and family. There was a prolonged stay in New Hampshire, where I made the acquaintance of the New England Review. For the last five years or so I’ve lived in the ocean playground of Canada—Halifax, Nova Scotia.
What made you decide to be a reader for NER, and how long have you been on staff?
Carolyn Kuebler published a story of mine in 2007, and we stayed in touch over the years. In 2014 (I think) she contacted me about becoming a reader, and I was happy to say yes. I’ve been on staff ever since.
Have you ever read a submission that later got selected for publication?
Yes, and that’s gratifying. You read a story, you feel strongly that it deserves an audience, and you play a small part in helping it find one; you can’t help but be pleased. During my first year with the magazine, I had a run of luck and two or three stories I recommended made it into print. Then there was a long barren stretch. I was still reading and recommending some strong stories, of course, but for whatever reason, they weren’t making that final cut. There are so many stories, and so many good ones, it’s bound to ebb and flow in that way.
What is your reading process like? What do you look for in a submission?
When I get a new batch of stories, I try to read a couple every day, usually in the morning, when my brain is as clear as it’s going to be. And that’s pretty much it for my reading process: a cup of coffee and a desktop computer. What I’m looking for is of course a story that knocks me out. A story that knows what it’s trying to do and does it. I’m drawn to writers who are in control—word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page—the whole way through, though without making too much display of that control. Of course too much control can be suffocating, or capricious, a simply boring. But I want to feel I’m in good hands, and that’s usually apparent very early in a story. I also look for humor; I may tend to grade on a curve for stories that make me laugh.
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?
Unfair question! There’s too much! But I can single out Ella Martinsen Gorham’s “Protozoa” (39.4). Funny, smart, purposeful—just a bang-up piece of writing; in fact it was included in the 2019 edition of Best American Short Stories. I take a tiny extra bit of pride in it because I was first reader of that piece. As I mentioned above: on a lucky day you read a story that truly deserves an audience. And if you can help it find that audience, you feel a little glow. Well, if that story goes on to win a prize or recognition (and a yet wider audience), then your head starts to swell. Or mine does. I carried a copy of Best American Short Stories around with me for a month and made all my friends buy me drinks!
How has reading for NER influenced your own writing/creative pursuits?
Reading for NER has made me more humble, I’d say. There’s a lot of talent out there, a lot of strong stories. In a more practical way, it’s made my stories shorter, not because long stories can’t be good, or even great, but because lit mags can publish only so many stories per issue. The longer the story, the longer the odds it faces. Also, I’ve gotten to the end of many stories and thought, If only it were two (or three or four) thousand words shorter. In other words, the piece is longer (in my opinion) than it needs to be, sometimes significantly longer. So I try to take that to heart. Start faster: that’s another lesson that a few years of reading submissions has driven home.
What do you read for pleasure? Is there something you’re reading at the moment that you would recommend?
I bounce between fiction and nonfiction, history mainly, whatever takes my fancy. Louis Menand’s recent book about Cold War culture, The Free World, is very good. He’s a clear writer, a good explainer, and has a sense of humor. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also smart. On the fiction side, in recent years I’ve been reading more thrillers and mysteries. I’m a fan of Mick Herron’s Slough House books. The first is called Slow Horses and there are five or six others featuring the same characters. They’re funny, sharp, and very well plotted.
Our 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.