In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. This week, writer Ian Stansel, author of the recently released novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo, shares his answers. 

What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?

The first thing I published was a long story (33 pages, I believe) called “All We Have.”

Who published it? Are they still around?

It was published by the Antioch Review. They’re still around as far as I know. They’ve been at it for something like 70 years. 

Give us some context: how old were you? How long had you been writing and submitting? How many times had the piece been rejected? Anything else we're missing.

I was thirty-one, I think. Or something like that. I’d finished my MFA maybe a year before. I’d been writing for a few years, but had just recently started sending work out. Couldn’t say how many rejections I’d received on it. Probably a couple more than a couple. Not so many that I gave up, not so few that I felt arrogant.

Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.

Getting that publication was something of a life-line. I was working a job writing about the stock market, helping rich people get richer. I had to write things like “Such-and-such company just laid off 1,500 workers—here’s how you can profit from it!” I’m not sure I believe in a soul, but something sure as shit was getting crushed.

A little context: some years before I was working at a bookstore and my car broke down in the parking lot. I was so poor that some days I would have to make it until dinner on just an apple and a hardboiled egg. Obviously I didn’t have money to get the car fixed, so it just sat there. I had to be at work at 7 am, but the only bus I could take dropped me off at 6:15. It was January in northern Illinois, the early-morning temperatures sometimes ticking down towards zero. I would sit in my broken-down car in a dark parking lot waiting for the store to open, my whole body shivering, my empty stomach grumbling. And one of those mornings, in a small moment of clarity, I thought, “This seems to be a low point for me.”

The stock market job was way fucking worse.

I worked there about a year and didn’t write a thing. Every morning I would sit on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands until I could force myself to drive to work. Every night I would drink beer and watch network television. Dark times. 

But while at that terrible, terrible job one day, I got a voicemail on my cell phone. It was the editor of the Antioch Review. I don’t know how many journal editors still call contributors to notify them of acceptances (not many—I know I never did when I was editing), but it was a great thing: to hear the voice of a person saying that you did something good. I listened to it a few times and then went outside and called him back and we talked for maybe five minutes. It reminded me of what I was supposed to be doing. Soon after I decided to go back to school, to get a Ph.D. The Antioch publication probably helped me get accepted.

The story also ended up being listed in the “notables” section of Best American Short Stories. And another journal solicited work from me (my second publication) based on that story. At the time I thought, “Holy shit, this is easy!” I was wrong. To this day I have never again been noticed by Best American, nor have I been solicited by another journal. Maybe I peaked too early.

Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?

I think it is a good story, though, no, I haven’t read it recently. It was the only decent story I wrote in grad school—the only one from my thesis that ended up in my first book. One thing I was proud of at the time, and I guess I still am proud of, is that the story was in no way autobiographical. Even when I was in my twenties, I didn’t want to write about people in their twenties. This story was about a couple in their fifties getting a divorce. I think as a budding fiction writer I felt proud that I pulled that off. There is nothing wrong with writing autobiographical fiction (though there are a few hidden challenges to it that some young writers may not anticipate), but I do feel that at some point it is helpful to begin imagining and trying to understand people who are not living through your circumstances. It just gives you more options and more places to go in your work. I wanted to do that, to one extent or another, right from the start.

Now that you've been doing this for a while, collecting plenty of rejections and acceptances along the way, what advice do you wish you could give your younger self?

Don’t write in order to get published. Write hoping this story is a tiny bit better than your last.

Ian Stansel is the author of the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) and the short story collection Everybody’s Irish (FiveChapters, 2013), a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous venues such as Ploughshares, Salon, Joyland, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston. He currently teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, the writer Sarah Strickley, and their two daughters.