February 10, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
Today I interview Joseph Grant, the very first Bartleby Snopes Story of the Month winner back in 2008. His story “A Sure Thing” ran away with the voting that first month. Let’s see if that success has continued to follow Joseph.
Joseph, thanks for agreeing to chat with me. Let’s get right down to it. You were the very first Story of the Month winner in Bartleby Snopes back in 2008. At the time, was that one of your biggest writing successes? Did it help to launch your writing career?
Nathaniel, you’re certainly welcome. I was thrilled to be your very first Story of the Month and came as a complete surprise, as I recall. At the time, it definitely was one of my biggest writing successes and it’s right up there with being nominated for a Pushcart Award. The award continues to be an honor. It certainly didn’t hurt that I could put that on my writing curriculum vitae. I do include it in my bio and I think it’s helped my writing career head in the right direction. People see that and pay attention, I believe.
How long have you been writing? What made you start?
I’ve always been writing. My mom once told me about me writing stories when I was about 3 or so and showing them to her and telling her that it was “my book.” It’s something that has always interested me, writing a story or reading one. Something to do when bored or on a rainy day. Along with school came the classics and I read a ton of them while still in grade school. When I was finished with a book that was assigned, I’d go and get another one to fill in the gap until we were assigned the next book. I was also that kid who read during the summer and did book reports for extra credit. It was something I’d enjoyed and not a despised task as it might have been for others. When I got older, I realized that there were a lot of poorly written books as well as well-written and I saw it as a sort of competition, I guess you could say. I started to write more and more on the subways in NY or at a cafe and had stories published here and there and a few newspaper articles, as well. Then, instead of print, I started to submit to the literary magazines online, which was cheaper and you usually had a quicker response time. In the old days, like anyone else, I had stories that got lost in the mail and sometimes they were my only copies. With technology today, things are a lot easier and saved rather than becoming lost forever.
So you have a new book coming out. Can you tell us a little about that?
Thank you. It’s part of the innovative Fight Card series developed by a publisher out in Camarillo, Paul Bishop. The series is inspired by the old fight pulp magazines of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Each book is a fascinating view on a different fighter who shares a common origin. Each fighter has been trained under the tutelage of a former boxer turned priest, Father Tim. This rogue priest battles gangsters, abusive husbands, drunkards, gamblers and the like while bringing up the fledglings boxers at a tough Chicago orphanage. Those are pretty much the guidelines. My story, “The Last Round of Archie Mannis” is a continuation of the theme and takes place from the 1920’s to present day. Mine is the story of a kid nobody wanted who grew up at the orphanage to become one of the biggest boxers of his day, rubbing elbows and boxing gloves with some of the biggest thugs, politicians, boxers, actors, singers and writers of his era, sometimes these are all one in the same as we both are only too aware. It comes out in March.
Congrats on the book. Let us know when it’s out. A few weeks ago, I blogged about having work unaccepted. I hear you have a little experience with that. What happened?
Well, I had sent out a collection of short stories to a few small publishers. One publisher in particular read and ended up liking my stories. I was asked via email if their publishing house could publish them, to which I was very happy. I actually had to turn down two other publishers who contacted and sent contracts to me as well while the first one was deciding. I weighed all options regarding the three publishers and decided to go with the first one as they had the best to offer. Contracts were signed on both sides, book covers were discussed and then one was agreed upon. I was given a publishing date. The publishing date came and went. So did my unanswered emails. So, too did letters in the mail as well as a few phone calls to the publisher. A letter sent by registered mail was received and signed for but as of this date, I have not heard anything more. The publisher’s site is 404, as are the other links. I am happy to report that no money was exchanged and had there been a request for one, I wouldn’t have honored it, anyway. I have no idea if the publisher went bankrupt, is in prison, died, got kidnapped by aliens; nothing. It taught me a lesson that even though you have a signed contract in your hand, it doesn’t mean a damned thing unless you’re holding the published book in your other hand.
That’s a tough break and I’m sure a frustrating experience. How did that experience affect you as a writer?
It bummed me out as they say here on the West Coast but I’ve licked my literary wounds and have moved on. Interestingly, the other publishers who had initially contacted about the collection are still interested, so we’ll see what happens. Writers start out idealistic and then quickly turn into pessimists with that first rejection letter. The same is true here. Until I have the book in my hand, basically. I’ll believe it when I see it.
What do you do to help establish your online presence? How important do you think it is that people know your name?
I have established a pretty good readership from exposure on excellent literary sites, such as yours. Literary reviews now have the ability to reach a much wider audience than, say, 30 years ago as a result of the Internet. Consequently, I do get emails from all over the world. They come from people who like my stories, which pleases me. It’s thrilling to know that someone in India, the UK, the Netherlands or Mexico are able to read a story I wrote in a cafe in California. The bonus, of course, is that they liked it. Just like this interview. It will go out to many, many people when it was originally just you and me. I find that fascinating. I also make use of the typical social media, FB mostly. I think it is important for people to know an author’s name, but if they read the stories, liked them and remember them, that would be more important to me than someone knowing my name. You can work at building your own brand but if it starts to become more important than the writing, it’s meaningless, really. A writer must write. Pure and simple. Anyone can write a book, such as celebrities do, which kills me. But only a writer can write a good book. Celebrities write for their egos and just to get their name out there and for the photo opp. Writers write for themselves first and then for others, which is dissimilar than writing purely from the point of narcissism.
When you aren’t writing (or promoting), what are you typically doing?
Reading others, thinking about story plots and sleeping. Sometimes sleep gets in the way, too. Stories can come in dreams, too. One night when I was drifting off, a peculiar incident occurred. An entire story came into my head like a movie being projected. There was a beginning, middle and an end. It was complete with scenes, plot twists and entire pages of dialogue. I got out of bed and wrote it as it played inside the cinema in my head, so to speak. It was an interesting experience. See? Even sleep has me thinking of writing!
What are your long-term writing goals?
Long-term goals are to get at least a few of the books that I have in mind published. Have a short story collection or two published, as well. Win more awards, like another Story of the Month. Hint!
What is the most unique thing about your writing process?
That is has no process. It can come at anytime, anywhere. I carry a notebook with me much of the time and can often be seen scribbling. I think a writer must observe but also create stories, conversely speaking. Stories must be imbued with real life in order to be good and on the contrary, include enough fantasy if they are that sort of story. In the end, the writer must tell it in a creative way or it won’t work. Make it real but make it interesting.
If given a million dollars, would you agree to write an absolute crap novel that you knew would cause you to lose all respect among your writing peers?
Since I have already been beaten to the punch by many others before me regarding this subject matter, the answer is no. If I write an absolute crap novel, then I would take responsibility for it. I won’t whore myself out and write something that I couldn’t face myself in the mirror over, no way, no how. There are enough whores in the world already, writing and otherwise. Literary agents are the only whores who say no and still get paid. They are subjugated servants to what is not a good line but the bottom line. They look for the next big same thing, instead of the next good thing. Literary agents used to matter years ago, but they are going the way of the dinosaur with the way publishing is heading.
Okay, now ask me one question. Make it count!
As an editor, you see a lot of stories. Regarding stories coming through the mail slot, what would you say makes a good story and what infuriates/challenges you the most regarding stories you receive? One question, really, but two-sided.
Great question, Joe. I don’t think anything really infuriates me anymore. Back when we were in our nascent years, we would get a fair number of stories that were just poorly written. And some of the writers would send back nasty emails after we rejected those stories. Now, most stories we receive are of pretty high quality. We have to reject a fair number of really good stories. Since we have our guidelines so clearly stated, people typically don’t send us things that will infuriate us. Occasionally we’ll get something that’s just full of typos. I think the only thing that really upsets me about a submission now is when it just isn’t ready, when the author clearly has sent something without even proofing it.
As far as what make a good story, for us it’s something with a unique and compelling premise (or a unique take on a more tired premise) that is told fluidly with characters who develop organically. The prose is tight. We want to publish stories that don’t have any words out of place. Every word does its job, and the story goes somewhere as a result. If you can do all that, you have a good story. Of course, this just represents our tastes. One of the great things about writing (and sometimes one of the frustrating things) is the subjectivity of it all. If you send out a story and a publisher hates it, that’s okay. There is a publisher somewhere that will love it. Begin the search!
Thanks for chatting with me, Joseph. Good luck with the novel. We hope this one actually makes it into your hands. Check back with us when it’s out.