Questions for Best American Short Stories Series Editor Heidi Pitlor
Each year's edition of the Best American Short Stories is edited by a prominent guest editor who makes the final selections for the collection--for 2007, it's Stephen King. But working alongside the guest editor is the series editor, who reads thousands and thousands of stories all year long and passes the best on to the guest editor. For years, Katrina Kenison held that one-of-a-kind role for the Best American Short Stories, but in 2007 she handed the reins over to Heidi Pitlor, a former editor at Houghton Mifflin and a novelist in her own right (her debut, The Birthdays, came out in 2006). We asked Pitlor a few questions about what many would consider a dream job.
Amazon.com: Congratulations: you now have one of those jobs that must make people say to you, "Oh my goodness, you just sit around reading stories all day! What a life!" Please dispel all relevant myths.
Pitlor: The key is to have young children. I have one-year-old twins, so I have yet to hear the question above.
I used to imagine Katrina Kenison, the former series editor, swinging in a hammock on a sunny day (there was always a hammock in my mind, and always sunshine), lost in her short stories, the twitter of birds somewhere nearby, a bonbon in her hand. I can assure you that none of the above applies to my day-to-day life--and I'm guessing it didn't apply to hers. Reading this volume of fiction requires intense concentration, large amounts of coffee, total quiet, a babysitter for my kids, and sadly, no bonbons, at least not on a regular basis. Still, I have no complaints. I do love my job and being able to read this much.
Amazon.com: Can you explain the process of selecting the best American short stories? What's your relationship as series editor with the year's guest editor (in this case, Stephen King)?
Pitlor: Magazines that publish fiction send copies to me. Literary journals, mainstream magazines, you name it. I probably receive three to four magazines a day. Typically, I read all of this fiction--more specifically, the short stories (no novel excerpts allowed) written by Americans or those who have made the United States their home. I choose 120 that I think are the best, and pass them along to the year's guest editor.
Stephen King wanted to read along with me, and so he went out and bought tons of magazines himself. We spoke quite often about what we'd read. But typically, I go off on my own for most of the year, pull the stories, and then work with the guest editor at the end of the year to help him or her choose the final twenty for the book.
Amazon.com: You're a novelist as well as an editor. How do you read all these different (or depressingly similar) voices every day and keep your own voice strong when you sit down to imagine your own work?
Pitlor: Good question! When I'm writing regularly--and I must admit that I need to get back to this--I try to write each day before I begin reading. Again, coffee plays a big role. I get up, take care of the twins for a few hours until the sitter comes, then take typically my third cup of coffee out to my office, which is above my garage. I write first, so that my mind is clear of other writers' voices. I try not to think too much when writing a first draft. For me, thinking sometimes leads to inadvertent stealing. If I'm trying to sort out some sort of puzzle in what I'm writing, it's too easy to remember another writer's approach to a similar one. If I can write a first draft quickly, I'm better off.
Amazon.com: In his introduction to this year's collection, King writes that many of this year's submissions felt like "copping-a-feel reading"--stories driven not by a need to be told, but the desire to show off for editors and other writers (rather than regular old readers). Did you have the same reaction? What was your sense of the year's reading?
Pitlor: I'll put it a different way than he did. I often felt that writers put on airs. To me, it's apparent when writers aren't being true to themselves, especially in their writing voice. I want to forget that I'm reading--unless being aware that I'm reading is exactly what the writer is after. But typically, I want to lose myself in the words, to forget that someone is behind them. I want to believe the characters more than that.
That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of stories that did feel true and urgent, that did take me out of myself for a brief while.
Amazon.com: Story writing seems to ride waves of influence, driven at various times by the models, say, of Updike or Barthelme or Carver. Is there a writer now who you feel is the most influential in the stories you read?
Pitlor: Carver still seems to be a big influence--I'm not sure his influence ever waned. Hemingway too, as well as Chekhov, Faulkner, Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Tim O'Brien. No one model comes to mind more than the others at this point.Amazon.com: What story was your most exciting discovery of the year? (And did King like it too?)
Pitlor: There were many for both of us--this is the best part of the job. He and I frequently enthused to each other about this or that new writer. But also about great stories by more familiar writers--that can feel like a discovery too. I don't know, though--naming the most exciting writer feels a bit like admitting you have a favorite child.