Riffing with TC Boyle

Every time I meet up with Tom, it invariably becomes this dope riff session on writing, culture, and music.  We end up talking about our favorite writers, our MFA days, our different views on craft, SoCal cultural mythology, East Coast/Midwest nostalgia, famous writers we've worked with who changed our life, a short bitch session on literary agents, random Rock'n'Roll references, followed by a short Q and A where I ask him questions about reading for the New Yorker Festival and going on tour in Europe and his revision process.  Today, more than ever, I felt like we were two friends in two very different stages of our literary career, just kicking it for a half an hour.  Some of the highlights of this convo included:

1.  Tom gave me some love for "The Invisible Dress," a chapter from my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, that he read as part of the Writer-in-Residence deal at USC.  He said it was one of the best things he's read of mine in a while, but then he stopped himself and said, "but you've written a lot of great stuff, so . . . "  I laughed when he said that

2.  After he said that sometimes he likes to "rewrite" classic short stories like The Overcoat, we began crooning about the Russian masters like Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, all of whom I read voraciously in college.  Diary of a Madmen, The Nose, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, Notes from Underground, The Idiot, War and Peace, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, were some of my most treasured novels back then.  And for Tom too, a connection I didn't even know we had

3.  Tom told about his experience being an editor for the Best American Stories 2015, which honestly, sounds totally fucking exhausting.  It was especially interesting to hear him talk about how he picked thetwenty stories for the collection

4.  Tom talked about switching from Viking to Ecco, his sadness about leaving one editor and his happiness about working with another

5.  Tom said he thought this was gonna be my year.  I told him I hope he's right.

6.  Tom asked me how things were going at UCI (very good).  Then, he asked me if I was applying to tenure track jobs this year, which I am.  I explained that I'm applying to every decent, great, and awesome, tenure track job out there located in or near a major metropolitan area, even jobs out of my league, because you've got to.  Someone will get those jobs, why not me?  He replied, "Now, you just need a book contract and everything else will fall in line for you with your PhD."  In his own sweet but indirect way, Tom implied that he's waiting to write a blurb for me and honestly, I can't wait for that.  In fact, sending him, Aimee, Percival, Valerie Sayers, Frances Sherwood, and Steve Tomasula emails for blurbs will be one of the sweetest parts of finally getting a contract because I'll get to thank them for all of their support, advice, and insight over the years

7.  Tom talked about his days as the fiction editor at the Iowa Review where he basically picked the stories he liked the most, and then sent his recommendations to Robert Coover who picked from Tom's shortlist all the way from London

8.  Tom talked about how fucking slow McSweeney's is, even with marquee writers like him.  They bought one of his stories a million years ago and still hadn't published it yet, which eventually made his agent, Georges Borchardt, badger them a little bit.  "I really don't care," Tom explained, "because they already bought the story."  Must be nice to have such an illustrious publishing career that you actually don't give a shit when McSweeney's gets around to publishing your short story.

9.  Tom and I agree that Tobias Wolf's Bullet in the Brain is one of the gold standards by which other short stories should be judged

10.  I feel like now, more than ever, Tom is waiting for me to make it big.  I feel like my time is coming.  He feels like my time is coming.  I know he believes in me as a writer with talent and stubborness to burn, which is an amazing source of confidence and support for me, but now I have to go out and slay this dragon myself.  I'm the only one who can do it.  I know he'll be cheering me from the sidelines, which I feel blessed about

Good Rejection from McSweeney's

Hi Jackson Bliss --

Thanks for letting us read " . . . " We rely on stories like yours, since a good portion of what we publish comes to us unsolicited. Unfortunately, we can't find a place for this piece in our next few issues--but we liked it, so we hope you’ll continue submitting. If you do, please include the word “ . . . ” at the front of your subject line—that way, we’ll be sure to see it. We're always looking, so send us something anytime.

Thanks again,

C****** H****

Good Rejections Suck Ass

I know I'm supposed to be grateful for receiving a good rejection. And on the most important level, I am. The fact that someone took the time to write me a note is a personally moving experience + lets me know that my writing touched someone enough for her to send me a letter written in her own penmanship, when they could have just as easily have sent me a form rejection, or gone out to lunch, or masturbated in the shower, or eaten a bowlful of black cherries. Maybe, the editor did all of things, and still sent me a hand-written letter. Who the fuck really knows? So the process of reaching out to someone, that I really appreciate. The outcome, on the other hand, just fucking plain sucks ass. I'm so sick of good rejections I could cry. In the beginning, they are encouraging little moments of artistic momentum, sent to you by the universe--or so it seems--to push you to keep writing, submitting + believing, to never give up. And write, submit + believe I have.

But I'm at the primitive (but slightly more successful) stage of my writing career now where the good rejection doesn't charm like it once did. The intention remains beautiful, but the end result is beginning to feel not only predictable but frustrating. Why do journals need a consensus when they publish pieces anyway? Why can't some editors push for the pieces they like + others simply lobby for the stories
they really want to see in print? I mean, certainly there will be much overlap of pieces editors both like, so why do I find my stories constantly dividing editors into yes + sorry-but-no camps? How scary would it be if they all actually agreed that my story was either uniformly kick-ass or uniformly shitty? I mean, doesn't art--and by that, I mean, good art--by its very nature, divide an intelligent audience? Isn't that the point? Anyway, I'm casting away my sorrow now to focus on my second novel + my story that will be coming out of Quarterly West soon. But these questions, I'm not sure if they ever go away.


On to rejections. Yesterday I received this hand-written letter from RHINO. It reads:

Dear Mr Bliss,

Thank you for your submission. We were particularly interested in "Shinjuku" [a 4am]," and it engendered a lively discussion among our editors. Although we were not able to find a place for it in the upcoming RHINO, we were nonetheless impressed with your work, and hope you will consider submitting to us again.

Wishing you continued success in your writing life.


Today, I received this rejection letter from McSweeney's after waiting exactly a year. It said:

Hi Jackson,

thanks for checking in on this one, and sorry it’s taken us so long to respond—we got sidetracked by a few special projects, and have gotten way too behind on our reading. I think we’ve finally decided to let it go, unfortunately--but please feel free to keep ‘em coming, as always. Thanks again,


What to say? I love both these journals, but I don't really have any more flash fiction I can send RHINO, sad to say, so I'm not sure I will be able to send them more material. As for McSweeney's, I'm beginning to feel like an asshole sending the fiction editor my newest short stories first (is it some weird sort of loyalty that makes me do that?) just to wait 8-12 months for my story to get rejected. That's a long time to wait before getting dumped. I mean, 5-6 months, doesn't sting so bad. I mean, 5-6 months is the standard production curve of rejection anyway. But 9-12 months? I find it so hard
not to think (read: dream) that my story has made it into the final rounds of manuscript heaven, a mythical land called McSweeneyville (the place where all fiction writers hope their manuscripts die) . I guess Aimee is right: if you don't hear from McSweeney's in a year, chances are, they're just not that interested. I guess the question now is, when do they start becoming interested? What am I doing wrong here? Are my stories not hip enough for McSweeney's? Are my male characters not broken enough? The girls, not spunky and eccentric enough?

The last piece I sent them was about a porn star who becomes a fan of a totally obscure literary fiction writer. If
that doesn't get them on board, frankly, maybe it's time I stopped trying.

Maybe it's just
not going to happen. Maybe I'm too old for McSweeney's + too young + naïve for the New Yorker. Maybe, just maybe, the real problem, is that I actually care what editors think about my writing + it bothers me that they don't love my writing the way I think they should.

Who the fuck knows?

New Wave of Submissions for Fall 2008

Because talent isn't enough in the world of lit. fiction, I've submitted manuscripts (self-contained novel chapters, short stories and lyrical essays) to the following journals for Fall 2008 (electronically, of course):

McSweeney's, One Story, Nimrod, 9th Letter, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review Fiction Contest, Meridian, Virginia Quarterly Review, 3rd Coast, Ploughshares, Emerson Review, The Literary Review, Sentence, Quick Fiction, A Public Space, The Kenyon Review, Cimarron Review, AGNI, The Baltimore Review, Witness + The New South.

Should I expect more heartache and agonizingly long wait periods, followed by a storm of rejection letters and a bunch of generic form emails based more on taste than technique? Of course. Do I think my odds are slim to none that most of these journals will pick up something of mine? Yes, I do. Do I still have the same naive hope that this time things will be different? Of course. Please read my Writing Is A Viral Entry if you want to know why. Will I let the staggering odds against me prevent me from slowly developing my fiction career? Absolutely not.

See, this is my attitude: I already know that I'm a gifted fiction writer. I'm just waiting for the rest of publishing world to figure this out. In the meantime, I'm going to keep paying my dues and continue improving as a new voice in fiction until I can finally get editors to see my talent. Yes, it's difficult. But I knew this going into it.

Dave Eggers Is a Cool Dude

When i met Dave Eggers in february at the Notre Dame Literary Festival, i thought he was funny and charismatic, and i respected the way he was using his celebrity to draw attention to genocide in the sudan, but i thought he was way too busy to follow up on his promise to me. for those of you checking in for the first time, after chatting with him for 10 minutes or so, i told Dave Eggers about a few africa pieces of mine, a memoir and a chapter from my novel, and i asked him if he'd take a look, and he said, i'm be happy to, send them to mcsweeney's and tell the editor to forward them to me, so what's your name?

Anyway, so i sent him two pieces and waited. that was in february and it's strange cuz i was just thinking recently, man, he's never going to read those two pieces, and i deliberately sent him two short pieces, one is 4 pages, another is maybe 5 pages cuz i know he's mad busy. well last night, i got two emails, one from the mcsweeney's editor and another from Dave Eggers' assistant, both saying, i'm so sorry, your email got lost in the shuffle. mcsweeney's editor rejected a story i sent him in february, but told me to send him more fiction, and he also wanted me to know that he just recently read the email i'd sent him 6 months ago and he forwarded it to dave. and then dave's assistant, michelle, also sent me an email saying, Jackson, we're so sorry about this, we know you sent this email 6 months ago, but i want you to know that right now Dave's in the sudan, but he wanted me to tell you that he got your two pieces and he's going to read them when he can.

You know, it almost doesn't matter if Dave Eggers doesn't publish what i sent him. just the fact that he stayed true to his word and the fact tat he remembered me, and that he sent his assistant a personal mesage for me, makes me really happy.

Now, if Dave Eggers will just pick up either of those two pieces, i'll be ecstatic for the rest of august inshallah.

Anyway, right now, i have mad respect for Dave Eggers. he's a true mensch.