We are thrilled to announce that Curtis Sittenfeld will be the guest judge of the first-ever McSweeney’s Student Short Story Contest! Curtis is the best-selling author of Sisterland, American Wife, Prep, and The Man of My Dreams, and her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, and Salon, among other places. If you have never read Curtis’s work before, the editors of McSweeney’s recommend that you rush to the store and buy one of her books. They also recommend that you read this micro-interview with her below. It is full of good advice.
What will you be looking for from stories in this contest?
One of my graduate school professors Frank Conroy used to talk about fiction being "alive"—when it has a pulse, a certain energy that can matter more than technical mastery. I consider that quality to be probably the single most important one.
What was your experience with writing like as a student? Did you already know you wanted to be a writer? Were you already writing?
I pretty much emerged from the womb and started taking notes. As soon as I became literate (around first grade), I was writing stories. And I was an avid enterer of writing contests. I entered far more than I won, but two I did win were the Mississippi Review’s (1999, judged by Thom Jones) and Seventeen’s (1992, judged by Jennifer Egan).
What is the most exciting piece of short fiction you’ve read recently?
I’m currently leading a book club for the Wall Street Journal for which I selected Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman. When I reread the collection, about fifteen years after I’d last read it, I was dazzled all over again. There’s so much she does well, but what particularly struck me as I analyzed the stories—and I mean this as a compliment—is how sordid a lot of them are. There’s no topic she won’t touch in terms of sex, violence, self-interest, and bodily effluvia, yet her inclusion of these subjects is always purposeful rather than gratuitous.
What are three pieces of advice you would give to aspiring student writers?
1. Find smart people to give you feedback.
2. Don’t go online, on social media, or check your email while writing.
3. Write about subjects that you feel obsessed with, rather than choosing a topic because it seems timely or important. Any topic can be timely or important if you handle it well. At the same time, if you expect to find readers (or be paid for your work), realize that fiction writing is a kind of conversation. Nobody owes it to you to find your work interesting.
In an upcoming issue of the quarterly, Issue 49, we’re going to have several authors re-write and re-imagine their favorite classic short stories. What is your favorite classic short story and why?
I’ve always had a soft spot for “The Lady with the Dog”—for its quintessentially Chekhovian poignancy, among other reasons.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on right now?
The British division of HarperCollins has commissioned what they’re calling The Austen Project—they’re asking six writers to write contemporary versions of each of Jane Austen’s six novels. The one I’m working on is Pride and Prejudice, which I’m setting in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. This is a departure from everything I’ve done before, and it’s making me use my brain in new ways. If there’s a club for writers of fan fiction, I now belong to it.