A BARRELHOUSE INTERVIEW WITH STEVE KISTULENTZ
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 Steve Kistulentz answers.
What was the title and genre of your first-ever published piece?
My first published piece has one of my favorite titles I’ve ever come up with, “Tough Talk at the Papaya King.” It was a short story about a college-age kid that became a mid-level cocaine dealer. It was based on two ideas: the first was a magazine feature I’d read about the son of 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro. He’d gone to Middlebury College and gotten popped for cocaine distribution. The second was a stanza from a song from 1986, “Welcome to the Boomtown” by David and David. “Handsome Kevin got a little off track/took a year off college and he never went back/now he smokes way to much/got a permanent hack/deals dope out of Denny’s/keeps a table in the back.”
I’d taken a year off college, too. But I went back.
Who published it? Are they still around?
It appeared in the Crescent Review, a small independent journal edited by Tim Holland. I knew Tim from the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. A lot of the other Writer’s Center faculty helped put the journal together, served as first readers. I’m not sure when they stopped publishing, but it was a good run, and they published a lot of writers who went on to bigger things.
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. I’d been writing seriously for about five years, and I’d just finished my M.A. at Johns Hopkins and I was tremendously depressed that I’d had to keep working in politics. I kept reading these magical anecdotes about people who sent a story unsolicited to the New Yorker or to the Atlantic, and walked away with huge book deals. My stories seemed to set land speed records in getting rejected. Back in those days, rejection still came in the mailbox.
“Tough Talk” got taken as a compromise, because it was the second-best story I had around at the time. The best story I’d written to that point was a story called “Sarah, of No Fixed Address,” which earned the high honor of handwritten rejections from places like Gordon Lish’s The Quarterly. I didn’t know much about journals then, and I was at a loss as to where to send it next.
That summer, I got a scholarship to a summer writer’s conference at Bennington College, where my workshop leader was George Garrett. George loved that “Sarah” story, and after class one day asked me if I had submitted it anywhere. I told him no.
He said, “I’m the fiction editor of the Texas Review, and I want to put it in the magazine.” He told me to send it to the editor-in-chief, with a note that George had already seen it and recommended it for acceptance. So I did exactly what he told me. I mailed it Monday and the following Monday it was returned to me as a rejection. Perplexed, I called George and he surmised that maybe some grad students had rejected it without reading the cover letter, and he suggested I send it again.
So I did.
And it got rejected again. This time with a scrawl across the cover letter, rather large and insistent, that said, “THIS IS NOT TEXAS REVIEW MATERIAL.”
The story was about a recently discharged Marine who returns home to Tidewater and takes a job as the night desk person at the county morgue. He’s on the job about a month when a Jane Doe body comes in, and the body turns out to be his ex-girlfriend. He knows from their past that she wouldn’t want a church service, so he steals her body and gives her a quiet, one-person funeral. I guess it was pretty dark. But everyone who’d read it loved it.
I sent that story to Crescent Review, because to my inexperienced mind, there were really no journals between the big New York ones and the tiny regional ones. I just didn’t know much if anything about the market then.
And Tim Holland loved that story, but he felt it was a little out there for his readership, and asked to see something else. So, dead bodies were bad, but college-age addicts were ok.
Did getting that acceptance feel as triumphant as you'd always hoped? Walk us through the moment when you found out.
Tim called to tell me. It was a Friday late afternoon, and I was on my way to the Insect Club, where I DJ-ed Friday happy hours for a couple of years. I got paid in cash for the DJ shifts and after I was done, I usually blew it all on drinks at one of the other clubs that were owned by the same group of investors, and that particular Friday was no exception.
The feeling of triumph came a few months later when the print issue showed up in my mailbox. This was early 1997, and one rainy February evening, I went to the old Chapters bookstore near 15th and K Streets NW in DC to see a reading by John Dufresne. John had just published his novel Love Warps the Mind a Little, which is to this day one of the most generous and humane novels I’ve ever read. The main character says, “This is how love becomes irrelevant,” and I was in the middle of that, and man, it just crushed me.
John read from the opening chapter of the book, which is laugh-out-loud funny, and afterwards, we talked a bit. He signed my copy of the novel, and at some point in the conversation, I’d mentioned that story to him.
A few minutes later, after he’d signed books for the other customers, John came up to me with a copy of the Crescent Review, open to my story, and asked me to sign it for him. I can’t tell you what a gift that gesture was to me. It gave me courage, and validation. A few years after that, John wrote one of the recommendation letters that helped convince the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to take a chance on me. I owe a lot to those two gestures, so thank you, John.
Are you still proud of that piece? Have you re-read it recently?
I can see the good and the bad in it, which I suppose is what most writers would say about their juvenilia. I know one writer friend who won’t sign copies of his first novel, because he feels like he became a different writer soon thereafter, and while my feelings for that story aren’t as severe, I do kind of understand. To my eye, I can see the mechanisms in the story, and the influences it holds are all far too obvious.
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?
Be patient. Which honestly has never been a skill of mine. I’m doing well now, because I’m prepared, and because I’ve worked hard at it. And I intend to keep doing that.
Steve Kistulentz is the author of the new novel Panorama, from Little, Brown & Co., as well as two collections of poetry, Little Black Daydream (2012), an editor’s choice selection in the University of Akron Press Series in Poetry, and The Luckless Age (2010), selected from over 700 manuscripts as the winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award. His short stories have appeared in many journals, including Narrative Magazine, Quarter After Eight, Crab Orchard Review, and in a special issue of Mississippi Review focused on emerging writers, selected by guest editor Rick Moody. His narrative nonfiction—mostly on the subject of popular culture—has appeared widely in journals.
His honors include the Benjamin Saltman Award for The Luckless Age, as well as fellowship support from The Hermitage Artists Retreat, Writers at Work, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and an individual award from the Mississippi Arts Commission. He earned a BA in English from the College of William and Mary, an MA from the Johns Hopkins University, an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and a PhD from the Florida State University. Currently he directs the graduate program in creative writing at Saint Leo University in Florida, and lives in the Tampa area with his family.