My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Gregory Spatz. His new novel from Bellevue Literary Press is called Inukshuk. According to the publisher, it "slips through time, powerfully evoking a modern family in distress and the legendary Sir John Franklin crew’s descent into despair, madness, and cannibalism on the Arctic tundra." Born in New York City, Spatz holds degrees from Haverford College, University of New Hampshire, and The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is also the author of the novels Fiddler's Dream and No One But Us, as well as the short story collections Wonderful Tricks and Half as Happy. His short stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines such as Glimmer Train Stories, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Epoch, Santa Monica Review and he has published numerous book and music reviews for The Oxford American. He's won numerous grants from the Washington State Artist Trust, as well as a Washington State Book Award, and in 2011 he was named Individual Artist of the Year by the Spokane Arts Commission. He now lives in Spokane, Washington, where he teaches in the MFA program at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, Eastern Washington University. His website can be found here.
My First New Yorker Rejection (and Acceptance)
My first rejection from The New Yorker was for a story I wrote in a burst of inspiration immediately after having finished my first stint of graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, in 1990. It flew out in about two to three weeks between teaching in a program for at-risk high school kids called Upward Bound, and editing and re-typing (for pay) a 1,000-page sci-fi/fantasy manuscript for a pair of aging hippies. I no longer remember the name of that epic hippy tome, but I remember that every page of it smelled so strongly of smoke (cigarette and dope) that I’d have to leave it in a box outside my office door overnight to keep it from stinking up the office. And no matter how many times I washed my hands, for hours after touching its pages, my fingers would smell like greasy smoke. I liked thinking of my management of that manuscript as a kind of objective correlative by which to measure my ability to block off and guard my own writing time from the outside world. I’d open the door, let in the stinky hippy pages only so many hours a day, typing away furiously and trying not to get bogged down in its sentences or wacky logic (Bob Dylan had taken the place of the Messiah, and there was some kind of Harley-riding, tattooed princess in charge of all earthly commerce…and maybe the main characters were named Frog and Toad--I don’t remember because, like I said, I was trying hard to keep that manuscript and its fraught logic from becoming too entangled in my mental circuitry). Then I’d shut it out, and turn my attention back to my own story.
That story was “Riding Miss Big.” Voice-heavy, first person, present tense--it was, in most ways, not much like any fiction I write nowadays. In it, a teenage boy is back east visiting his father for the summer, trying to figure out his college plans. East Coast? Or West Coast? His parents are totally estranged and have not spoken for years. During the school year, the narrator lives exclusively with his mom, a San Francisco lesbian chef, and her partner. Most of the story focuses on the father and son riding horses together, the son continually goading the father to get a reaction, then feeling guilty because it’s just too easy getting a rise out of him. It had a strong closing paragraph, father and son with their ears pressed together and sharing a handset to talk to the mom in SF, and a big moment of disclosure from the dad, all about his former, unfettered affection for the mother.
I didn’t know what I thought of the story, really, but I liked the voice of it and the closing paragraph. I wrote it in a kind of ebullient, high-flying state of over-confidence. In finishing my MA, I had finally written some good, break-out pages (what would eventually become the opening pages of my first novel, No One But Us) and I had the mistaken idea that from here on my work would only get better, faster and easier. I didn’t understand yet how good and bad stories have an ongoing, back-and-forth symbiosis in a writer’s life; you don’t get one without the other. Good work grows out of bad work, and vice versa. In most ways, I didn’t have the bigger picture--a necessary blindness probably, otherwise I might not have cleaved so tenaciously to the other really important thing I was beginning to understand: that through it all, whatever happens, you have to plug on. Persist.
Here’s the weird thing about “Riding Miss Big”: everywhere I submitted it for publication, I received back an enthusiastic handwritten note from an editor, and always with a completely different reason for why the story was unacceptable for publication. We don’t like the ending, we don’t like the beginning, we love the ending, get rid of the horses, love the horses…there was no consensus in any of it, no clear way I saw to revise; so I’d send it back out, unchanged. Those days you sent hard copies with a stamped self-addressed manila envelope for return of the manuscript, and then you sent the dog-eared, creased and folded-in-half manuscript itself back out again and again, until it fell apart. That was the way, and “Riding Miss Big” got plenty creased and worn in the submission process. It also got me a foot in the door and a personal connection with editors at a number of journals which eventually accepted my work (most notably The New England Review, Shenandoah, and The New Yorker) but in all it would take 53 submissions and several years before that story found a home--Chattahoochee Review--still unrevised from its initial form.
The handwritten rejection for “Riding Miss Big” from The New Yorker came on a rainy day. I remember ripping open the top of the manila envelope and dodging raindrops, and then when I saw the signed, personalized note at the bottom of the form rejection letter, folding it in half and running up the stairs the rest of the way to get inside so I could read it again, closely. Damn, I remember thinking. I’ll take a rejection like that any day! It was from a junior editor, Deb Garrison: “Very well done--but we never felt we got to know the narrator quite well enough to grasp the changes that take place at the end. The issues remained a bit fuzzy somehow. But the details are memorable, and we enjoyed seeing this. Will you try us again, please?”
Try us again, please? Definitely! From then on, every story I finished, first thing, as soon as I knew it was really done, off it went to Deb Garrison. In my office I still have a folder of rejection letters from her, spanning a period of four to five years, mostly handwritten, a few typed, one long and detailed, in response to a baggy 11,000-word story which she’d asked me to revise before kindly refusing. I don’t know why I save them. An archive of persistence and failure which I rarely review, but which I’d certainly miss if it were gone, reminding me that you have to keep trying.
The story she finally accepted, “Wonderful Tricks,” truly caught me by surprise. I’d written it immediately after arriving in Iowa City in 1994 and before starting classes at the Writers’ Workshop, during a few hot summer weeks when my apartment was unexpectedly invaded by a painting crew and before I had any real friends in town. A few months later, after workshopping it with Frank Conroy--his comments: It’s a half an ejaculation! Half an ejaculation! Find the rest of the story!--I sent it off to my agent at the time.
It was, in fact, the only story of mine that agent refused to submit for me. “Try the quarterlies,” she said. “I just can’t see submitting this one. Sorry.”
Just to see. Because it couldn’t hurt. Because you never know. Because it might lead to another publication somewhere down the road, or whatever. So I sent it to Story Magazine and The New Yorker. Nowhere else. Lois Rosenthal, Story’s editor, said “No” within weeks--no surprise there. And then I mostly forgot the story existed. I didn’t submit it anywhere else, didn’t talk about it with anyone. I was discouraged by my agent’s response and out of practice doing my own submissions. Also, it was summer, no quarterlies were reading submissions, and I was pretty absorbed in working through final edits and proofing for No One But Us. I knew I’d eventually return to “Wonderful Tricks,” reevaluate, take another stab at revising, but for the moment it just wasn’t a priority. Seasons passed. My personal life suddenly turned hectic with a live-in girlfriend actress from New York…we got cats…I was never alone…the cats were everywhere, always underfoot, the girlfriend was always leaving or coming back.
And then one day in the middle of the morning’s writing hours, the phone rang. Of all things, it was Deb Garrison asking me about this story “Wonderful Tricks” and apologizing for the long delay. Was the story still available? The ending didn’t quite work, she said, but the rest of it, she loved. What I remember of that conversation, after all those years of written correspondence with her, is her matter-of-fact tone and her slightly husky, New York voice--also trying very hard to match her coolness and to stay focused and matter-of-fact in my responses. I remember taking deep breaths, thanking her, telling her yes it was still available and then describing for her how it had ended in earlier drafts, before trying to find Frank’s elusive other half of an ejaculation and adding on pages and pages of the narrator running around barefoot in the dark and getting his feet cut up and so on. “That sounds just right,” she said. “That sounds actually more like what I was picturing for the ending. Can you send it to me like that, with that other ending? If you don’t mind?”
Putting the old ending back together and re-attaching it was probably the easiest piece of revision I’ve ever done. Frank’s suggestions might have spurred me to write past the true ending of the story, but he’d been right--the scenes leading up to the re-attached original ending (a break-up sex-scene in a dying tomato patch, with a literal ejaculation) were what had been missing after all. The old ending grafted right onto that without a problem. The story hadn’t been missing an ending, it hadn’t needed 16 more pages, it just needed a better penultimate scene.
Off it went to Deb again. And a few weeks later, another phone call, and we were celebrating for real.
“Wonderful Tricks,” as it turned out, was one of the last stories Deb worked on and accepted during her tenure at The New Yorker. In retrospect I think I was even luckier than I knew--not just to have connected with her all those years earlier with “Riding Miss Big,” but to have connected with her when I did, and with time enough for her to accept a story before she moved on in the world.
Photo by Brett Hall Jones