We all know what a short story anthology is and does and looks like—library shelves, bookstore shelves, our own shelves are lousy with the things: Book of shorts, organized according to theme. If we like the theme or the authors, we pick up the book. End of discussion.
Until B. J. Hollars came along and single-handedly raised the bar.
His anthology You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside the Story, published this past May by Writers Digest Books, aims not just to entertain. His anthology aims to form a community. To teach. And then, yes, to entertain.
Oh, did I mention that this wunderkind of the coming of age tale hasn’t quite finished his MFA degree at University of Alabama yet? That’s in the plan, too, sometime in 2010. But before B. J. can pack in another project, ASF caught up with him to discuss this anthology that’s like a mixed tape, how his own writing has been affected by it, and what in the world he does to avoid having a single spare moment in a day.
The following Q&A took place over a series of emails between ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski and B. J. Hollars.
ASF: I’ve mentioned to you before that I love this collection—its generosity! including the wide-ranging and deep-reaching stories themselves, the intimate first-person author discussions post-story, and the quick, practical, exercises they offer.
You bring us Steve Almond, Aimee Bender, Kate Bernheimer, Ryan Boudinot, Judy Budnitz, Dan Chaon, Brock Clarke, Michael Czyzniejewski, Stuart Dybek, Michael Martone, Antonya Nelson, Peter Horner, Jack Pendarvis, Benjamin Percy, Andrew Porter, Chad Simpson, George Singleton, Brady Udall, Laura van den Berg, Ryan Van Meter. How did you go about assembling this all-star lineup?
BJH: Well, choosing the writers was the easy part. It was sort of like making a mixed tape. I read every collection I could get my hands on, every literary magazine, and then I took my favorites, made a list, called it “The Dream Team” and set about convincing them to take part.
Now, why such incredible writers were willing to take a chance on me, I have no idea. But I think a lot of it had to do with the others on the list. Everyone knew they were in good company, and even if they had no idea who B. J. Hollars was, I think they figured anyone who put these writers together couldn’t be all bad.
ASF: Please tell us about the format, why it is what/how it is, and was it your brainchild?
BJH: Yes, I will take responsibility for the beast. Don’t get me wrong, I think it the idea of putting the stories alongside the authors’ essay and writing exercises worked out quite well, but more than a few authors were originally hesitant about the structure. Writers, myself included, have a hard time writing about writing. It’s sort of a black hole, and I think the humblest of writers like talking about their own work about as much as a root canal. I can certainly understand this. I want my own stories just “to be” without any interpretation necessary. If I have to explain them, it’s sort of like stripping them of their magic. But for the sake of pedagogy, these writers were kind enough to sacrifice a little magic for the sake of the students.
I like to think of the book as a kind of “one-stop shop” for writers. Not only do you get prime examples, but you also get the behind-the-scenes look, as well as an opportunity to practice the newly discovered techniques. So far, the feedback I’ve received has been quite positive, which is exciting. It was a great experience, but it certainly wasn’t easy. I suppose if you string a key to a kite and fly it enough, eventually you’ll discover electricity (or at least electrocute yourself in the process).
ASF: For how long was YMBTTTR in the works?
BJH: The process was surprisingly fast. I got the go-ahead on May 1, 2008, and by the following October the book was complete and back in Writers Digest’s hands. It was a pretty exhausting summer, though. A mentor of mine once said that working with writers can be a bit like herding cats. Thankfully, there were no cats in my collection, just wonderful people.
ASF: By “go-ahead” do you mean you’d already gathered your “Dream Team” and pitched the book and its structure to Writers Digest? Were they the only publisher you approached? I ask because I think it surprises student or novice writers to find out how much legwork an aspiring writer (editor in this case) has to do, how much tenacity and audacity s/he has to have.
BJH: I’d gathered my tentative Dream Team by that point. I wrote the proposal aimed at Writer’s Digest because I was familiar with their work and I knew they were right for this book. But a proposal is more than just a page summary. It was at least fifteen pages long, and it was pretty in-depth, with marketing considerations, other similar books, etc. I think what made my proposal strong was the fact that I already had a tentative team assembled. It’s hard to say no to twenty great writers.
ASF: What have you learned from the compilation of YMBTTTR–both from the work included and the work you’ve done on it?
BJH: The included work is simply chock-full of lessons, though I have no delusions about it—the writers are what make the book great, I was just the guy who packaged it all nice and tidy. Steve Almond taught me to just write the darn story, even if the darn story feels awful throughout the first draft. Judy Budnitz taught me to shift my parameters and experiment with form. Stuart Dybek taught me about the limits of truth, Michael Martone taught me about killing off characters, Andrew Porter taught me about searching for memory through setting. The list goes on.
But the experience has taught me plenty of lessons as well. First off, shoot big. The initial list of authors I hoped for and the final list is nearly identical. I knew a few of the writers, but most were just writers I admired. Virtually everyone was more than happy to help out. This project also taught me to hone in on your interest and try to become the expert on a small piece of the academic pie. I’ve made coming-of-age stories a significant part of my life. I read them, I write them, I think about them, and one day, with some luck, maybe I’ll even grow out of them, too.