Anthony Wallace plugged away for 10 years at what became the title story of his first published short story collection, The Old Priest. After a string of rejections, Keith Botsford, a College of Communication professor emeritus and former Bostonia editor, who founded the literary magazine Republic of Letters with the late Saul Bellow (Hon.’04), published it online in 2011. It then won, in swift succession, a Pushcart Prize and the Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, the collection’s publisher.
Once out of the gate, the book drew critical praise and more award nominations, and Wallace, a senior lecturer in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program, was named one of three 2014 finalists for the PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction. The prize was won by Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo for her novel We Need New Names.
An enthralling postmodern nesting doll of a story, “The Old Priest” was turned down by 12 literary magazines, some taking issue either with its length (it expanded to 43 pages over the years) or its second-person voice. The Iowa Review agreed to accept the story if Wallace changed it to the first person. He refused. Wallace (GRS’99), who earned a master’s in creative writing 20 years after graduating from Lafayette College with a degree in English literature, has never had an agent and never envisioned anything close to commercial success. But he never stopped writing, with encouragement and praise from friends and mentors, like Leslie Epstein, director of BU’s Creative Writing Program, and friend and colleague Chris Walsh (GRS’95,’00), a CAS assistant professor of English and associate director of the Arts and Sciences Writing Program, who passed the story on to Botsford.
Wallace writes about life changes, from misguided moves to shattered relationships. After the story won the 2013 Pushcart Prize, literary blogger Karen Carlson described it as “spectacular,” an “emotional ride, brought to a devastatingly perfect touch-down by the last paragraph.” From the publisher’s notes: “The characters seek to escape their earthly boundaries through artifice and fantasy, and those boundaries can be as elegant and fragile as a martini glass or as hardscrabble as an Indian reservation. In these eight vividly detailed short stories we encounter cheating husbands, neurotic housewives, out-of-control teenagers, desperate gamblers, deluded alcoholics, and a host of others who would like a chance at something more. Some face the consequences of their actions, while others simply begin to see what they’ve been missing all along.”
BU Today spoke with Wallace about the rewards of persistence, the joys of being widely read, and what happens next.
What does being a PEN/Hemingway finalist mean to you?
Already I’ve gained much greater visibility. The winner, NoViolet Bulawayo, and my cofinalist, Mitchell Jackson, have New York publishers and agents, and their books have been reviewed in the New York Times. Bulawayo was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, which is international. Jackson has been interviewed in The Paris Review. This award puts me in their company, at least from the standpoint of visibility and recognition. Next Sunday I’ll be standing on the podium with them, a great honor. I also get a one-month residency at Ucross in Wyoming, which I’m thrilled about. And of course it’s a really big deal for me to receive an award with Papa’s name on it—and to meet his son Patrick.
Most of your stories involve casino workers. I’m assuming you were one, too.
I worked as a pit boss, a supervisor of table games. I went to Atlantic City after college because the money sounded good, because it sounded like fun, and because I couldn’t think of anything better to do. I went to dealer’s school, dealt the games, and worked my way up. I stayed a lot longer than I expected to. They kept paying me, so I kept showing up—right up until the day I couldn’t push myself through the door.
Is Atlantic City a sad place to you?
It’s sad to see people lose their houses, businesses, everything they’ve worked for, but the place itself is interesting. The city has a history that goes back to the 19th century, when it was connected to Philadelphia by train line, an escape from the sweltering inner city. The grand hotels were so well built, they had to implode them with dynamite to make way for the casinos. You can see all these layers of time, because some of the casinos were developed on historical themes or developed from the structures of original hotels, with different historical periods thrown together in a way that suggested creative possibilities.
What moved you to turn to writing?
Boredom, probably, but it was something I’d always wanted to do. I had written some stories and poems and published in a few small literary journals before I sent an application in 1998 to the BU graduate Creative Writing Program. Leslie Epstein called me up and offered me a teaching fellowship. He was so enthusiastic that I decided to come to Boston. His mentorship and support changed my life.
Your choice of words is often surprising. Are you the type of writer who might spend an entire day rewriting a single sentence?
I tend to go back over my writing until I hit a bump, if I can put it that way—something that stops me and sets off an alarm, even if I choose to ignore it. And if I hit that bump again, whatever it is, I know I have to do something. My internal mechanism is telling me there’s a problem, even if it’s only a comma. The process is gradual and intuitive, and I think the process of becoming a better writer is the process of making better intuitive decisions, of developing the mechanism that Hemingway called “a built-in shockproof shit detector.”
Did “The Old Priest” begin as metafiction—with the story’s author a character in the story who writes a book called The Old Priest—or did that emerge in the rewriting?
That’s a postmodernist device I initially resisted, but eventually I realized that’s where the story wanted to go—it was built into the thing. The narrator is not me, exactly, although we do have some things in common. The relationship between the narrator and the old priest is based on stories, and the story itself is so much about the act of storytelling and the tendency toward self-mythologizing. Eventually I realized those are important themes that run throughout the collection.
Did you ever stop believing in “The Old Priest,” even though it was repeatedly rejected?
I always knew it was a good story—that I’d come up with something fairly original—but because it went unpublished for so long, I continued to work on it, and it continued to improve. The original story was seven or eight pages, a portrait of somebody I knew, and it changed and expanded over a period of about five or six years. I sent out versions when it was 10 pages, 15 pages, 25 pages. The final version is 43 pages, and at some point I began to see it as the title story of a collection.
Is it typical for you to take many years to complete a short story?
Yes, though I don’t always like it. Through the Drue Heinz Literature Prize I’ve gotten to meet famous writers like Amy Hempel and George Saunders. George told me it took him 14 years to write “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” which is 60 pages and my favorite of his stories. Hearing that has made it easier for me to accept that it really does take as long as it takes. I’ve written a second collection that I’ve been tinkering with for about five years.
Were you close to giving up on trying to get published?
In 2001 Michael Prince, a CAS associate professor, offered me a job teaching in the Arts and Sciences Writing Program, and I thought, well, I have an advanced degree and a full-time job, I’m back in Boston where I want to be, I’ve escaped the god-awful casino—time to get a book out. But it was difficult for me to place my work in the top journals, and I couldn’t get an agent. “The Old Priest” was rejected by more than a dozen prominent literary magazines, and I was becoming bitter about what I saw as an unfairly subjective, arbitrary process. The decision was never about whether to stop writing; it was a matter of whether I was going to continue to think about my writing in published terms. My friend and colleague Chris Walsh sent the story to Republic of Letters editor Keith Botsford, who accepted it that same day. It was over a year before he published it, though, and he ran it in an online edition, which had not been discussed. I was thinking about asking him to take it down when National Book Award finalist Salvatore Scibona, who had also published in TRoL and was one of maybe five people who saw the story, nominated it for a Pushcart. And it won.
How did winning the Drue Heinz invigorate your writing career?
Publication in the 2012 Pushcart anthology and news about the Drue Heinz came within months of one another. At that point I hadn’t sent much work out in four or five years, and I was making peace with the fact that I might never get a book out. I did continue to submit The Old Priest to the contests. When I got a call from Drue Heinz series editor Ed Ochester, I was on the verge of deciding to stop seeking publication. When Ed told me I’d won, I thanked him, hung up the phone, and screamed for about five minutes. I’m surprised nobody in my building called the police. The news came just as I was on the edge of a cliff, about to throw myself off. Winning the Drue Heinz has meant book publication and a fairly large cash prize. It has meant visiting colleges and universities and meeting so many talented, generous people who care about literature. It has meant coming to terms with the public side of being a writer, which has given me more confidence and motivation to continue. And of course without the Drue Heinz I would not now be a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway. For the past two years it’s been up, up, up.
After all that, when The Old Priest was finally accepted for publication, was it hard to let it go?
I think if the book goes paperback, I’d like to do another light revision—word choice and phrasing, a comma here and there. Nabokov said he wrote his novels in order to get rid of them. For a long time, The Old Priest was a book I couldn’t get rid of. Publishing it and traveling around the country reading from it and discussing it has caused me to understand that a book is not fully complete until it is out in the world—and its author along with it.
Which writers have inspired and influenced you?
I started with an approach to fiction writing that grew out of ’80s minimalism. The chronology of the stories in my book is out of order; “The Old Priest” is the first story in the collection, but was written last. It is the most stylistically original (if you’ll permit me that immodesty), while “Upstairs Room,” the oldest story, is my acknowledgment of the Hemingway-Carver influence. I thought about not including it, but decided it was an honest thing to do because that’s where I’d started. And I like the story, for itself and that it makes me feel close to those writers. It’s like when Pat Martino plays like Wes Montgomery. It’s not just that he owes Wes and is acknowledging that debt and the tradition he’s working in: there’s so much affection there.
You write in the first person, both male and female, and “The Old Priest” is in the second person. Tell us how you decide on point of view and voice.
For me, point of view is the key to a reader’s emotional connection with a character. If I write a couple of pages and can hear the character’s voice, that’s a good start. If the voice is female, I go with that; the collection contains two stories told in the first person by female characters. In the case of “The Old Priest,” I could feel that spark right from the first sentence. The second person is often frowned upon as a literary gimmick—it was often rejected for publication for that reason—but I chose it carefully and deliberately. It stands between the first and third person and so creates proximity and distance at the same time—exactly the relationship of the narrator to the old priest. Junot Diaz has used the second person in interesting ways from the start of his career, and nobody seems to give him a hard time about it. It’s something you need to use selectively, of course, like any literary strategy. My only decision with “The Old Priest” was whether to keep going and try for a novel—I felt the material was rich enough. But I’d said what I wanted to say in 43 pages, so that was that.
Do you plan to write a novel?
I’ve written one novel that I haven’t been able to publish—very literary and also dark, a contemporary gothic. I’ve been working on a second novel for about five years and feel that it’s finally coming together and that it has greater possibilities in the marketplace, which is not to rule out the first novel. “The Old Priest” was rejected over a dozen times, as was the collection that is now getting all this attention. I also have plans to write a novel about the first wave of casinos in Atlantic City, around 1978, 1979, which I think will be research-based. I won’t be facing a blank page for a very long time.
PEN/Hemingway finalists Anthony Wallace and Mitchell S. Jackson and winner NoViolet Bulawayo will be honored Sunday, April 6, at 2 p.m. at a celebration at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester, Mass. Geraldine Brooks, author of The People of the Book, Caleb’s Crossing, and Year of Wonders, will be the keynote speaker. The event is free and open to the public.