Friday, May 1, 2009

Fish Stories Find


Sometimes you never know where things will lead, if anywhere. And yet . . . there is an inexplicable impulse, a vibe, a premonition perhaps, that drives you on. I was browsing in the then-new (now closed) Waterstone's book shop off Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Spring 1995, standing before the sleek black shelves and colorful book jackets. I had recently come to the end of a creative writing class that I'd been taking in the evenings through Northwestern's University College (their continuing education department). The class had me thinking for the first time about the possibility of writing fiction, attempting to get published in the genre. And of course my instructor encouraged me to get my hands on a bunch of literary magazines and start reading, researching the market, requesting submission guidelines. It's the same thing anyone will hear who takes even a half-step in the direction of fiction, at least where short stories are concerned. So, there I was, on the outside of the publishing scene at the time, but wanting an inside view, a clue to how things worked in Chicago's literary scene. I scanned the rack of journals displayed at Waterstone's, and there was one that caught my eye immediately—first because of its cover art, a piece called "Magazine Model" by Bill Rock. I admit to being one of those consumers swayed by the outward appearance of a book. I flipped through the contents, read some first paragraphs or stanzas of stories or poems, liked what I read: a prose poem by Maureen Seaton, a story by Eric Charles May, and others, most names unknown to me. I turned once more to the front of the book and started to read the introductory letter from the editor-in-chief, Amy Davis. I remember thinking, I could have written that! Meaning that the tone, the voice as much as the message, was in complete harmony with my own thoughts about stories, who tells them, and how satisfying it is to read works that can be either calming or so provocative as to be uncomfortable—either way, you know you are thinking, feeling, and wonderfully alive when you read good writing. I had allotted a budget for one publication, and this was the one I could not put down and therefore purchased. The volume was called Fish Stories: Collective I, a "literary annual of fiction and poetry." I devoured the collection at home, then got out a highlighter and started going over the contributor's list, marking all the Chicago connections, noting where the writers were working, what writing programs they might have been teaching at, and so forth. I reread the editor's intro, noticed her entreaty to keep the book, to carry it around, and to "maybe even write us a letter." I highlighted the address. I read the ads in the back of the journal and noticed the same address popping up for something called WorkShirts Writing Center that offered fiction workshops. I decided to write that letter. All these years later, I do not remember what I wrote. Certainly I praised the collection, which was a new publishing venture, and said something about how sympathetic and compelling I found the editor's vision. I asked for an informational meeting, the opportunity to ask questions about how the collection came about, to find out more about WorkShirts as well. I may have asked for the chance to get involved, or else that came later. I did get my meeting with Amy Davis, and she and I hit it off immediately. The next thing I knew, I was assisting the editorial team and learning about the process of putting together a litmag, A to Z. I got involved with production, and the publisher, Lee Nagan, trained me in prepress document preparation. I also found a supportive writing group at WorkShirts, and began to hone my own craft at night, after my day job. I was energized by the group of editors, and found all kinds of extra hours to devote to the second year's collection. After that, I became a full-fledged fiction editor, and eventually also the production manager. Fish Stories folded after four annual publications. But the professional connections have turned into lifelong friendships, and even now, under other imprints, I work with many of the same people from those days. I think it's fair to say that everything I do in publishing today came out of those early days in Chicago—days for which I will be forever grateful. Like it was yesterday, although it now counts as nearly fifteen years ago, I recall standing in Waterstone's, completely unable to predict the direction my life would take as a result, but still somehow knowing enough to trust the intuition that told me, looking at that image of a face surrounded by blue and by the pattern of what could be reflections of water and light, that this was a portrait of destiny calling, and that I must reach out to grasp it.

From the department of "Where are they now?": Amy Davis is the founder of a new community and workspace solution, Writers WorkSpace ( . . . where writing works!) in Chicago; Lee Nagan still runs his full-service printing, graphics, and direct mail business, Fisheye Graphic Services; another former Fish Stories editor, Stacy Bierlein, today is with OV Books (along with FS contributor, Gina Frangello) and is also serving as executive director of a new publishing company, Emerald Bay Books . . . both presses I have the pleasure of working with as well.

1 comment:

  1. you never know where things may lead!
    this is wht i expect from blogging - to go somewhere that i didnt expect to
    as for reading something that i remember immediately made me think that i could have written that, this applies tome too: i read 'small island' by andrea levy, and by the end of it, that's what i thought too!

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