Nathan Leslie recently won the 2019 Washington Writers’ Publishing House prize for fiction for his book Hurry Up and Relax, which will be published on Oct. 15, 2019. Leslie’s nine previous books of fiction include Three Men, Root and Shoot, Sibs, and The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice. He is also the author of a collection of poems, Night Sweat. Nathan is currently the series editor for Best Small Fictions, the founder and organizer of the Reston Reading Series in Reston, Virginia, and the publisher and editor of the new online journal Maryland Literary Review. He lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, Julie.
Curtis Smith: First of all, congratulations on winning the 2019 Fiction Award from The Washington Writers’ Publishing House. Winning a contest is great—but I know a lot of writers struggle with the question of whether or not to pay a fee and submit to contests. What’s your experience been? What advice would you offer younger writers who are considering a book-length contest?
Nathan Leslie: Curtis, thank you so much for the opportunity to chat with you. It is a high honor. Great first question–as a writer who is also an editor I think a lot about the logistical side of submitting. I do try to enter maybe five to ten contests a year. The expenses obviously add up and the likelihood of winning is small, but for the book-length contests it is worth the risk and investment, in my view. The reason for this that it is difficult these days to find an open reading period and for $25 to $30 I can provide some small support to a press and get a fair read. That said, I try to be picky regarding which contests to enter. I certainly avoid entering just to enter and I try to find a press I admire and one with which I feel as if I have a fighting chance. This was the case with WWPH. Though I had failed to win the contest several (many) times before, I received positive feedback regarding my last contest entry a few years ago and felt as if I had a decent chance. Essentially, I got lucky. But all it takes is one stroke of luck. I mean, I can accept rejection on 99 manuscript submissions as long as I receive a YES on 1. As for individual short story or poem contests, I usually stay away. It’s a personal preference perhaps. Certainly being published by a top tier magazine, for instance, would be wonderful, but the odds are stacked against any one individual work and I simply suspect that more writers enter these contests, making the likelihood of acceptance that much slimmer. Of course, entering contests is also a way of supporting presses and literary magazines–which is another reason to enter a few. As a sidebar, I’m personally, however, not a supporter of paying $3 for a Submittable fee for more for a regular submission to a literary magazine. I do it on a rare occasion, but mostly I find it to be an annoying practice. It’s one thing to establish a prize and charge a fee where the winner of the prize receives publication and prize money. It’s another thing entirely to charge a reading fee. Reading fees used to be frowned upon in a big way but now many have come to accept them as the new paradigm. I generally find the claim that one would pay $3 to the USPS anyway for a print submission to be a specious argument. Why? 1. For years authors were able to submit via e-mail for free via e-mail. And 2. Paying $3 to send a submission via snail mail is not sending the money directly to the magazine and/or a corporate entity (Submittable). To me it is clearly unethical that authors should be charged by a literary magazine for regular (non-prize) submissions as a (sneaky) way to fund their magazine, and the many magazines who do this should be ashamed of themselves. It is an unfair burden placed on authors. Ten years ago this practice would have never been accepted, but now it has become normalized as a result of Submittable’s footprint specifically. So it is fair to say that literary submissions have been corporatized. It ain’t right.
CS: You’ve published novels and poetry as well as short fiction. In the sense of approach—the hours you spend at your desk—how do these ventures differ? Is there a unique mindset or set of strategies for each genre? What are the commonalities?
NL: I tend to focus on short fiction and flash fiction, primarily. I just find the short story to be so efficient and inherently elegant. That said, over the last few years I have ventured more and more into short novels and novellas (I have two completed novels I am shopping around, for instance). Novels, for me, take an expanse of uninterrupted time, even if the novel is on the shorter side. I have difficulties writing a novel when I’m teaching, for instance. Too many interruptions to remain “in the flow,” so to speak. For a novel, I need several months in the summer when I can focus solely on my writing. Short stories and flash fiction (and poetry) I can work on at any point during the year. The mindset is completely different because I’m writing several thousand words as opposed to sixty thousand plus. Also, even if the characterization is equally complex, the plotting of a short story tends to be much more streamlined and less intricate and it’s the plot that, for me, takes the most energy and attention. I tend to write flash fiction and short fiction throughout the year, especially revising and tweaking stories that I compose in the summer. So for me there is a seasonal nature to writing. Compose mostly in the summer and then revise and tweak and develop in the fall through spring.
CS: You’re very active in the literary community. You run a reading series and you’ve edited a number of anthologies. I’m sure these things are time consuming—they must take attention away from your writing—but I’m guessing they also come with rewards, both expected and not. Can you talk a bit about these ventures and what you get out of them?
NL: Thank you for noticing. I do have a number of pots on the stove currently and for me what is fun about that is they all kind of feed into one another. Let me start with Best Small Fictions. In the Spring of 2018 Tara Masih asked if I wanted to take the BSF reins and I said heck yes! I had been a fan of the project for several years and it was and is an amazing opportunity. I’m sure I have spent more time on Best Small Fictions in 2019 than any other project, but it is a labor of love and it is just so exciting to have the opportunity to consider and weigh in on the best flash fiction out there. I lost track of how many individual pieces I read for BSF 2019, but I’m sure it was over three thousand thousand in number. Also, for Best Small Fictions 2019 we branched out to include many, many international works. This was not always the case before–previous incarnations of BSF tended to be more American-centric. BSF 2019, on the other hand, is an anthology of world literature. This makes it a tremendously exciting anthology. The thing is BSF is a collaborative effort so I must mention my editorial board members, staff and also specifically my terrific assistant editor Michelle Elvy who stuck by me during some notable changes in publisher and structure, Elena Stiehler the wonderful publisher at Sonder Press, and also Rilla Askew who served as guest editor. In addition to this I also have my own small literary biannual, Maryland Literary Review, which has been a great way to stay active as a fan and reader of contemporary poetry, short fiction and creative nonfiction. I began this project last spring, and though we are new I believe folks have enjoyed what we have published so far. Lastly, I have a monthly reading series Reston Readings, in Reston, Virginia which has been in existence for three plus years now. With all three of these editorial/organization projects, I most appreciate two specific facets. First of all, it is nice to give back to the literary community by giving other writers an opportunity. Without lit mags, small presses and and a decent reading series or three, contemporary literature would dry up. We live in what seems to be an increasingly ignorant age; I view these projects as a kind of buffer perhaps. Secondly, on a selfish note, when I can step back and put on my editor or organizer hat I can also step back and enjoy the words themselves and learn from them. It’s important to find inspiration not only in the world itself and my own self-generated concerns and inspirations, but also in the creations of others. Why? Because on some conscious or subconscious level the creativity of others seeps into my own writing. I am not an island. I find sustenance and inspiration in what others are up to also. This was the case big time with BSF–not only did I have the chance to accept for publication so many authors from all over the world, but I also gained exposure to so many authors whose work I was not familiar with. I learned a ton.
CS: I really enjoyed Hurry Up and Relax. There’s a lot of comedy here—which I admire because comedy is hard to write (for me at least). But it’s not always a comfortable comedy—we have the stress of living too close to one another, the sterile lives of office, tired marriages, simmering frustrations, the imperfect science of making connections. Are there certain comedic elements you look for when mapping out a piece? In the end, what tone do you find your work gravitating toward?
NL: This collection is quite different for me in some regards. Though I have embraced satirical/comedic elements in some of my previous collections and in Tommy Twice, for instance, it was certainly not the main thrust of my writing. For this collection, something shifted. We live in such a surreal world now where, thanks to the internet and social media in part, unheard of events happen all the time. Bizarre attitudes and theories are deployed on a daily basis. Crazy is seemingly the new not-crazy. So it wasn’t exactly difficult to tap into some of this absurdity–I just opened my ears. That’s the scary part: though it seems as if Hurry Up and Relax is satirical (and it is), in many respects it’s actually just a reflection of reality. That said, I have a companion collection of stories that I have been shopping around, also (and which I composed during the same time, over the last few years). This book, A Fly in the Ointment, is primarily gritty-realist in tone and mood. I have room to embrace both approaches to fiction (as well as others). I suppose I am easily bored and if I just do the same thing over and over again, what’s the point? I want to push myself aesthetically.
CS: I admired the dialogue in these stories. I think I noticed that because I labor over my own use of dialogue. Do conversations between your characters flow for you or do you wrestle with it? What standards have you developed for yourself in terms of how your characters speak?
NL: Thank you so much. It is a difficult question to answer with any semblance of absolute clarity. For me dialogue is more intuitive than anything else and rooted in characterization. I do consciously wrangle with dialogue, but I also believe dialogue simply is an expression of character and having a clear sense of who I am writing about. That’s the most important component of dialogue for me. I’m not sure I have any specific standards for the dialogue that I write other than I do want it to sound authentic. That is vital–nothing is worse than canned dialogue where it feels as though the author is telegraphing. Dialogue is notoriously tricky. I guess at the end of the day I would say that is more about feel and nuance and ear than anything else.
CS: Let me ask another craft question. Some of the questions a writer asks of a piece are the basics—should this be first or third person—should it be present or past tense. In this collection, you alternate between these. When do these basic constraints come to you? What elements draw you toward one or the other? Why is it important for a writer to have all these different lenses in their toolbox?
NL: Not every story is the same, of course. Some stories call for first person present, others call for third person attached past. It just depends on what I am trying to achieve. For me it is so important to be able to vary my approach depending on my intent. I probably gravitate a bit more towards first person than any other point of view, just because I like to work within the voice and allow the voice of the character to be up front. However, in my last book–Three Men (2017)–I wrote all three of the novellas in the third person. I just like the variety.
CS: What’s next?
NL: Well, I have a few books of fiction (two novels and two short story collections) that I’m shopping around for possible 2020 or 2021 publication. I am also working on a lot of new flash fiction and short fiction as well as on some prose poems (more prose than poetry–proems?). In addition, I have been writing some satirical pieces in the non-fiction vein recently. I will continue on with Best Small Fictions 2020 (nominations open up later in the fall), Maryland Literary Review and Reston Readings. I think with all of those projects in the mix I should be able to stay out of trouble.