Judge Spotlight: Laura van den Berg

by Cassidy McCants

We’re happy to announce that this year’s judge for the Nimrod Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction is Laura van den Berg, whose first novel, Find Me, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR and was longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize. Laura will join us in October for our Conference for Readers and Writers, along with poetry judge Jericho Brown, literary agent Mark Gottlieb, mystery writer Deborah Crombie, and memoirist Sasha Martin—and we’ll announce more guests soon.

To celebrate, I’ve just read and reread van den Berg’s There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights, a slim collection of stories published by Origami Zoo Press in 2012. I chose this book because I’m fascinated by the flash fiction form (a flash piece is a story told in no more than 2,000 words, according to The Review Review), but I think this collection would appeal to anyone who seeks out character-based stories. In just thirty-six pages, van den Berg brings us into nine different worlds, each distinctly its own and all inhabited by characters contemplating the meaning of family and struggling to connect with their loved ones—or to cope with the “plaguing dissatisfaction” brought on by the loss of those they’ve loved (“Something Thrilling and Heroic and Strange”).


In the title story, the manager of a horse stable is unsettled upon discovering someone has been coming into the barn at night. When she tells a police officer she plans to sit in the office and wait for the intruder, he tells her she needs to act responsibly because she’s a mother. Van den Berg’s close third-person narrator follows this interaction with a simple and telling truth: “The thing she hated the most about living in a small town was everyone knowing what you are.” Not who but what. The woman, whose name is not mentioned in the story, obsesses over the safety of her child, but a mother isn’t who she is. This unnerves her the way the intruder does—to calm herself she goes outside every night and beats snow off the rhododendrons in her yard, never really sure if it does “more harm than good,” a worry we come to guess is one of her most persistent preoccupations.

In “Photography,” after her husband’s death, a woman named Lenore gets into the habit of watching her neighbors take photos in their living room. With their windows open, as though they haven’t considered the possibility of someone watching, the husband acts as photographer while the wife poses as a model. Lenore loves watching because she’s always had difficulty making things beautiful: “her paintings never came out right; the petals were always smudged, the water too dark,” writes van den Berg. Lenore comes to learn that the husband intentionally makes the photos look ugly by “turn[ing] his wife’s body into an alien landscape,” and the piece becomes a quiet meditation on the impermanence of all kinds of beauty.

The element of voyeurism struck me in “Photography,” especially as I moved on to the following stories, when I realized I felt somewhat voyeuristic while reading the pieces. The characters in this collection are so expertly developed, so clearly understood by van den Berg—the glimpses into their lives are intimate and strange, and to dive into these stories feels almost like peeking in on the personal lives of my own neighbors. But what saves me from feeling like an ogler is that the people here are undoubtedly van den Berg’s creation. I love that she knows these characters well enough to make me question my boundaries as a reader.


Van den Berg deals with fine lines like this in each of the stories: in “The Golden Dragon Express,” a woman enjoys a moral upper hand over her cheating husband until she disparages him too much during a game of Monopoly, causing a turning of the tables; in “There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights,” the mother is concerned with how subtle the differences can be between harm and good, between safety and danger, between humans and animals; and in “Photography,” both beauty—however it may be defined—and life last until suddenly they don’t. And with these short pieces van den Berg herself establishes the line between tenderness and sentimentality.

There’s so much more to say about the collection, despite its small size. I can’t wait to speak with Laura in October, to hear her read, to learn more about how to say all that needs to be said within the confines of short-short stories like these.

Author photo by Paul Yoon (American Short Fiction)

Cassidy McCants, an Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.


Talking with Author Kelly Magee

by Susan Mase

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Kelly Magee’s story “Nobody Understands You Like You” was published in Nimrod’s Spring/Summer 2016 issue, Mirrors & Prisms. She is the author of Body Language (2006), With Animal (2015), co-written with Carol Guess, and, most recently, the story collections The Neighborhood (2016) and A Guide to Strange Places (2017). Her stories and essays have appeared in numerous publications, in print and online, and she teaches writing and literature at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Susan Mase: During the past four months alone, you have published two short story collections, a story in Granta, and an online essay, among other things. How does this much great writing get completed and published in such a short time? How do you work on several projects at once?

Kelly Magee: First of all, thanks for the compliment! Some of these things are connected, like the story that appeared in Granta was from one of those collections you mentioned. And really, the timing of all of this was mostly luck. I’ve been working on the story collections off and on for many years, and they just happened to be released for publication close to each other. But I do usually have several projects going at once. It makes me happy to have lots of things in progress because then I always have something to pick up again. Like many people’s, my writing time is really limited, and it helps me to be able to pick up a piece and work on it a little at a time, then switch to another piece when I’m in a different mood. I tend to make fairly steady progression on several things at a time, which means I’ll have nothing finished for long stretches of time and then several finished pieces all at once. I used to try to be more methodical about it, but over the years I’ve learned to honor my process and not try to fight it.

SM: You describe The Neighborhood as “a collection of fairy tales and retellings.” The stories in A Guide to Strange Places give point of view and voice to eight different American cities. What inspired these diverse themes and structures? Did the stories in each develop from an initial plan to create a thematic set?

KM: A Guide to Strange Places began as an experiment in point of view. I’ve long felt emotionally connected to various places I’ve lived, to the point where they seem like members of my family. I was thinking of that workshop advice to “activate your setting,” to have location be more than something the characters walk around on, but I wanted to go a step farther to try to give places I loved their own point of view. The result is that I turned them into these kind of monstrous beings composed of part-landscape, part-voice. This did start as a thematic set, based on that premise.

The Neighborhood had a much more loosely constructed plan. I taught a class called “Recycled Writing” in which we read very old fairy tales from around the world. I’d been writing stories in the magical realist vein for a long time and am a fan of fabulist writers, but reading those old stories was thrilling in a way I hadn’t felt in a long time. I started incorporating small details from them into stories I was working on, which led to the tales playing a bigger and bigger role in my own work. So in The Neighborhood, you can see that variation—some of the stories have only nods to fairy tales or fabulism, and some are solidly in those categories; some have recognizable fairy tale characters in new roles, and some borrow the fairy tale form but not the content. The description of the book as “fairy tales” is the easiest but not entirely the most accurate. Part of what fascinated me about the fairy tales was their treatment and depiction of mothers, especially evil mothers. If I had to describe the book, I’d say it’s about what it is to be a nontraditional parent.

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SM: The story published by Nimrod, “Nobody Understands You Like You,” is skillfully crafted and a lively, provocative read. The central image of a wolf, or the idea of wolf, and the animal’s presence in the story, add multiple discursive layers. How did this idea guide the story’s development?

KM: Thank you, and I was so glad to have this story appear in Nimrod, especially as part of the Mirrors and Prisms issue. Wolves appear in several of the fairy tale retellings, and I was interested in both the metaphorical use of the wolf and the physical aspect of it. In other stories, the wolf is symbolic; in this story, I was interested in looking at the wolf purely as an animal. The wolf isn’t good or bad, intrinsically; it’s just itself. It’s the humans around it who invest it with meaning (in the story, the neighbors think the wolf is dangerous, evil, practically criminal). The trick of the story is that the narrators are unreliable, and there’s no real evidence that the wolf isn’t a dog, as Jamie insists. I had a lot of fun while writing the story, playing with that ambiguity. I’m also interested in unpacking the ways in which people create narratives that justify atrocities, the way these narrators created a story to excuse their violent act.

SM: The unreliable storytellers here are Greg and Linda, the married couple next door who speak in a collective “we”—except for the transformative moment in the story when they address each other. Many stories in The Neighborhood use plural points of view. And, again, you “experiment” with points of view in A Guide to Strange Places. How does the first-person plural operate in this story, and how has the use of plural points of view interested you and informed your recent work?

 KM: The plural point of view invigorated my writing for a while, and I think it initially came from attempting to write these fairy tales. After using the more common collective voice in a few stories, I began wanting to push against the boundaries and possibilities of the technique. This story uses the first-person plural, but it refers to two specific people, one of those married couples who are so close they’re nearly the same person. I like the plural as the voice of judgment, a chorus of people who have some authority to tell the story and are determined to tell it in a way that exonerates themselves from whatever trouble has occurred. So Greg and Linda, in this story, want to portray themselves as the victims, even though they committed the crime. They are safely ensconced in their house and marriage, watching as their neighbor (a single mom, a lesbian in an abusive relationship) falls apart. There came a point in the story, though, where I felt like they needed to lose the safety of their collective mindset—these are the moments when they separate, when they address each other, and even become dangerous to each other.

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SM: Our call for submissions for the Mirrors & Prisms issue asked for work from writers who identified as LGBTQIA rather than for works dealing with LGBTQIA content. You wrote about our call on your website, your interest in thinking more about “the different ways attention to inclusivity and diversity is playing out in the literary marketplace.” How did your response to our call develop or change as you continued to think on it?

KM: In addition to creative writing, I teach queer literature at my university, and so questions of what makes a piece of writing “queer” or not have been part of my scholarly work for a long time. I identify as a lesbian myself, and that informs much of my writing—my interest in “evil mothers” from fairy tales arose, in no small part, from my history becoming a lesbian mom during a time of intense cultural restrictiveness around sexuality. When I became a mom for the first time, for example, it was not legal for gay people to adopt children in my home state. This was when the national debate over marriage equality included widespread arguments about “family values” that violently erased even the possibility of my having a family outside a heteronormative system. So I think that, even when I’m not writing queer characters, my writing is always informed by queerness, by my own sexuality, but also by my experiences feeling like an outsider, like my very existence was up for national debate. For this reason, I was glad for Nimrod’s call, which specified the identity of the writer without regard to the content of the writing. I write, and love to read, stories about GLBTQ characters, of course. But I also believe that the perspective of being part of a marginalized community is likely to inform the writing of anyone from that community, even if they aren’t writing about it directly.

SM: “Maybe there is something to this wearing language like clothes. Suits of armored words. Pronoun gowns. Adjective earrings and verb sneakers. Things crossed out and revised. The crossword-puzzle-Scrabble-game of us all.” So ends your recent online essay, “So Your Employer Offered You A Pronoun” (hobartpulp.com), a funny, witty analysis of the conflicts surrounding identity categories. Does this essay speak to your current thoughts on these issues?

KM: Language around identity markers and categories seems to be in a period of rapid change at the moment, and I struggle with changing my own patterns and habits. At the time I wrote this, I was trying to figure out the best way to both ask for and honor the pronouns of a class of seventy students. I was skeptical of what seemed to me an overly simplified solution—to just wear buttons. At the same time, I always try to challenge my initial reactions, to play devil’s advocate, to see if I can argue the other side. So that’s kind of where this essay lands, more with a question than a solution. How are we going to connect across this faulty medium of language?

SM: Before we close, please tell us what you are working on now.

KM: I’m doing 30/30 for Poetry Month: writing one poem every day during April. Only I’m not a poet but I am a cheater, so I’m writing tiny stories centered on the idea of definitions. The titles are Jeopardy-style questions, and the “poems” are stories that attempt to define a word or concept in an unusual way.

SM: What are you reading? Or what is on the pile to be read?

 KM: I am always in the middle of reading many books (just like I enjoy being in the middle of many writing projects), and right now I’m reading Sonya Huber’s Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays, Kazim Ali’s Fasting for Ramadan, and Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali.

SM: Assuming Nimrod is #1, what other literary journals do you read?

KM: Not surprisingly, probably, The Fairy Tale Review is a favorite, as are Booth, Third Coast, Ninth Letter, and Monkeybicycle, to name a few.

SM: Thank you for your time, your story, and your dedication to writing.

Follow Kelly Magee on kellyelizabethmagee.com or on Twitter: @kellymagee.

Susan Mase is the Fiction Editor for Nimrod. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Tulsa Literary Coalition, a new non-profit presenting Magic City Books, an independent bookstore coming to Tulsa in fall 2017.

Interview with Noah Stetzer, Nimrod Contributor

by Somayeh Shams

Nimrod was happy to publish the work of poet Noah Stetzer in Mirrors and Prisms: Writers of Marginalized Orientations and Gender Identities, our spring/summer 2015 thematic issue. One of our fiction editors, Somayeh Shams, interviewed Stetzer this spring about his new poetry collection, Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016).


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Somayeh Shams: Noah, you have recently published a beautiful chapbook entitled Because I Can See Needing A Knife. In each poem you write about living with AIDS, its consequences on the body, and how it changes one’s relationship to the body. The book is also about love and family, which turn out often to be the lifelines of your poems. Tell us a little about the process that shaped this chapbook.

Noah Stetzer: Thank you for such kind praise. This book would not have been possible without the great people of Red Bird Chapbooks, especially Eric Hove and Sarah Hayes. At the time these poems were being drafted I was immersing myself in any information I could find about HIV in general and my diagnosis specifically. I was seeing doctors about every nine weeks and so my own body was very much a front and center topic—one that you can see reflected, I think, in the book. At the same time, I was seeing in my face the striking resemblance I have to my father when he was the same age. And because of the seriousness of my diagnosis and the critical infections that landed me in the hospital along with the natural order of things as a man gets older, I was certainly facing issues of my own mortality. I began digging into where my father and I are the same and where we are not. Growing up gay made me think we were more different than we actually are and the book, I think, shows my coming back to that again and again—finding I am in fact my father’s son.

S.S.: In your poems you often make use of liminal spaces. By that I mean spaces that are places neither of departure nor of arrival, and which create panic, like in your hospital moments or in “Intruder.” In this poem the speaker, who assiduously keeps track of their medicine, realizes that they are missing pills:

[ . . . ] and so now I’m worried if one missed pill might be enough, like maybe a line of a crack has surfaced along the side of my face, where something’s just a little broken or starting to break. Because last night the knife went missing, or at least that’s when I couldn’t find it, the knife I noticed missing after dinner when I went to load the dishwasher. No big knife in the sink, not the knife drawer, and nowhere else in the kitchen and my first thought was it was in the hand of an intruder, all in black behind the closed guest room door waiting for a moment, like now during the empty afternoon, when my guard is down, and I’m alone in the house. Someone holding the missing knife, making no noise, not moving: all night [ . . . ]

Do you intentionally let liminal spaces inhabit your poems, take control, and make the reader feel the powerlessness? Or does it happen naturally?

N.S.: My first thought upon reading the word “liminal” is my affinity for “in-between” places: airports, Laundromats, and driving alone in the car. There is something soothing for me in these places where I am not expected to inhabit a role, I don’t feel an expectation to be someone’s idea of me. I feel like my head is quietest in those places. I am attracted to those places and so I place my speaker there again and again—it’s as if in that space I can see more clearly and hear my thoughts plainly. The static of what we are supposed to see, supposed to hear, supposed to believe gets pulled back and what’s left are these encounters and lyrical moments that occur in my poems. So I guess you could say it’s both intentional and natural. As I think a little more about this, there is something very freeing about the powerlessness of liminality: less risk of making a mistake, of not living up to expectations, of choosing wrong.

S.S: When I arrived at the other end of your book, the other side of the diagnosis, I felt changed by the journey. In your second to last poem, “Dusting,” you write this heartbreaking and brilliant line: “about an awful kind of waiting, cause we both know you’re the driver & I am the dog.” Can you elaborate on how you decided that this poem needed to be your second to last in the book? And perhaps talk a little about this last line and the “you” in it?

N.S.: What surprised me about “Dusting” was how many elements of the other poems informed it: the car, the hospital, and the snow. Its placement in the book was important to the arc of the poems because it has a latter-day feel to it, especially in how the speaker appears to have regained some agency. About that last line: I found myself with our dog Jack, who was diagnosed with lymphoma, and I was driving him to the vet’s and urgently looking for an answer I wanted and not the crushing answer I was getting. And in an arresting moment of clarity I realized that I was doing a thing my husband had done with me—and I came to know how helpless he must have felt—and in a moment of empathy I realized a kind of helplessness he must continue to feel in the face of my diagnosis.

S.S.: “Use” is the last poem of the book, which you are kindly sharing in its entirety with our readers:


Stand me up naked in the carport and go at my legs with Brillo pads
and Comet cleanser: go ahead and draw blood if you think that makes a difference;
I’ve soaked myself in Drano baths and picked at scabs along lips,

but this won’t come out. Use my blood-stained toothbrush to scrub
my toenails with your thumb pressed hard against the cold hose nozzle;
unfold a stepladder, climb up and frown at the grime on the top of my head,

pour uncut bleach to peel it clean, and wipe down my dirt-stained back
with ammonia-soaked socks. Do you think I haven’t scoured
with vinegar and Arm & Hammer inside my thighs, up under my legs,

to get clean? Your left hand grips my shoulder, while your right
fills my mouth with Boraxo soap. Push in close with stinging water
so the thin skin inside my armpits tears, press it into my ear so grim

rivulets rush out; while I watch a moth flutter against
the yellow bug light, the shadow stuttering along the ceiling and the cement
where water runs dark now into the yard––and still black sickles

will smile along each fingernail. I’m loaded up and shot through, a weapon
armed without a timer; bend me over at right angles, hold my leg
and rinse my teeth, hook your fingers in my mouth, and graze my hair trigger tongue.

I’m still a gun pointing down the driveway.

I was lucky enough to get a signed copy of your chapbook in which you signed:

and so we keep writing.”

Can you tell me more about those powerful words? What they mean and how they connect with your collection and specifically with “Use”?

N.S.: “Use” started as a response to the use of the term “clean” to denote someone who is not infected with HIV. “Are you clean?” gets used a lot, at least in gay circles, especially when negotiating sexual encounters. And so I was tackling that idea, exploring the actual connotations of clean, and pushing against its usage in this way. It’s interesting that you asked about this poem in relation to the inscription I wrote in your copy. The tag line SILENCE = DEATH came out of the urgent need of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. It was introduced with a manifesto that among others things declared silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people . . . must be broken as a matter of our survival. And so the slogan became a shorthand to stand against the social norms of “we just don’t talk about those things” that were muzzling discussions of safe sex and by extension sex between men. It was also a direct counterattack to the inaction of the government and the real silence from the president at that time (Ronald Reagan wouldn’t mention the word AIDS in public until 1985). That sentiment, that SILENCE = DEATH, is one that I lean on again and again in my work. When I am afraid of content I want to explore or worried that a poem may be too graphic in its depiction of the realities of my AIDS diagnosis, I think on this slogan. And so to come full-circle back to “Use,” this poem is one where I embrace this idea of saying out loud a counterattack to those who use “clean” pejoratively. And to also send a warning.

S.S.: Do you feel, then, a kind of urgency in your work? And a pushback against it needing you to push right back?

N.S.: I feel an urgency because of my diagnosis—because of the serious nature of the opportunistic infections that landed me in the hospital and the critical numbers that accompanied my HIV diagnosis (taken together they indicate a diagnosis of “AIDS”—and although that signifier is falling out of use to its broadness it was/is applicable to my symptoms). My doctors have done herculean work to stabilize my infection—achieving and maintaining an “undetectable” amount of virus in my blood—but I still experience the co-factors that accompany an ongoing HIV infection. And so I feel a race against the clock in my work that I feel acutely in my life: pushing to say what needs saying.

Since the hospital, it has been disorienting for me to accept a lack of ownership over my body: doctors apply their treatments, gay men (both HIV-positive and HIV-negative) fit me with their boundaries, governments impose their statutes, well-meaning friends & family impress upon me their expectations—as the result of this biological infection. If I am pushing back against anything, I am pushing back against various parties that behave with a sense of ownership over my (infected) body.

S.S: What are you working on now?

N.S.: I’ve been invited to read in support of the chapbook—so I am doing that. And I participate pretty regularly in The Grind Daily Writing Series (full disclosure: The Grind comes out from the Bull City Press community, where I am an associate editor), which, just like it sounds, asks each writer to produce a draft every day. I like it because we never give feedback to one another; the series sets up public accountability to get work done and, like with 750Words.com a few years back, I flourish with deadlines. That work has helped as I continue to tinker with and shape a full-length manuscript of poems.

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Noah Stetzer is the author of Because I Can See Needing a Knife (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2016). His work has appeared in various journals including Bellevue Literary ReviewNimrodGreen Mountains ReviewChelsea Street Station, and as part of the HIV Here & Now project. A graduate of the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Noah has received support from both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Lambda Literary Retreat for Emerging LGBTQ Writers. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Noah now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and can be found online at noahstetzer.com.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.


Lawn Mowing

by Nona Charleston

When I returned to my hometown after a twenty-five-year absence, I eased the transition from North Shore Boston to Tulsa, Oklahoma, by joining a women’s writing group. While I was at long last home, I had returned with a back pocket of memory, confused by the newness of the oldest place I knew.

Writing in the group was a way to unscramble and make sense of the seemingly arbitrary delivery of life’s story. Back as a single mother with a second grader and set to care for aging parents, I needed to quickly find a way to understand the narrative of my changed life. I was ready to be part of a group that encouraged personal stories. The group had been together for as long as I had been gone and was generous in support and criticism. I describe it as a writing group rather than a writer’s group because meetings included a timed exercise in writing.

Two weeks ago three of us met to sort through our writing from the past, and that’s when I found the following few paragraphs about my father, which came from a writing group prompt that called back family. I include it now as his birthday approaches. He was certainly a Taurus, a father bull navigating narrow spaces inside the china shop known as family.


When I catch myself by surprise in the mirror, I see my father’s face, not mine, his face in mine. I who never understood him, or even once imagined that I might favor him, lose my face inside of his. The remote father—who was the peripheral being, the corner of the room, the quiet navigator, the shadow, takes my place, for a long moment replacing my sense of self. And it is not just in the mirror.

I am mowing the lawn when I feel him inhabit my body, imposing his thoughts, ringing my mental telephone; the man who scarcely spoke to me in life must now tell me about mowing, about baseball, about fences and yards, crabgrass and children.

Was it because we both lived inside the shadow of my mother, who was quick to say what she wanted, when she wanted it, and who she wanted to bring it to her, that we were always partners without knowing? Were we but accidental accomplices—shelving our own desires, not knowing or understanding them—or could there be separate desires? And when I am set to be hard on myself, I stop to wonder if it wasn’t simply easier to erase our wills? These things we shared.

The smell of the cut grass rises in the heat of summer. The loudness of the gasoline-powered mower hollows out a senseless quiet place with its steady roar when his thoughts and questions fill up my mind.

This uneasy recognition, one that startles, is a kind of clock, perhaps, an unambiguous face marked with numbers and reason. It steps into sequence, organizing memory, reminding me how long he has been absent from life, mine and his own. These thoughts come back louder than logic, stronger than silence. Perhaps it is memory that won’t allow silence. It’s got to babble on like an invisible racecar running backwards, retracing the real and the imagined. There is much I missed from our shared history. I stand at his stone longing to ask and wonder why we were what we were, familiar strangers linked by blood and bone. The stone is silent except for date and place; it is too late to ask. I know it will happen again, this odd invasion. I cut the grass and listen.

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Nona Charleston is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the Director of Nationally Competitive Scholarships at The University of Tulsa.