Starting a new business, I feel I can say with some certainty, is a little like walking into a bookstore and picking up a book by an author you have never heard of. Will it be humor, a murder mystery, an epic novel, or, some can only hope, a rags to riches story?
I can still recall the feeling 22 years ago, as the idea for my new business was hatched in a basement in Princeton. My mind raced with different scenarios that I might encounter — some good, some bad have since been realized; others remain figments of an imagination in overdrive. But in all that fortune-telling I never once imagined that one of U.S. 1’s most talked about issues would be one devoted to short stories and poems.
But that is exactly what has happened. The latest example: A few weeks ago I was having a meeting with a cardiologist (another thing I never would have imagined 22 years ago) and he asked me where I worked. When I told him U.S. 1 he immediately recognized the name — isn’t that the paper that publishes the short stories and poetry, he responded.
Now we are once again hosting a reception for the writers and poets (Thursday, August 17, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Tre Piani restaurant in Forrestal Village). Since it’s the 10th anniversary of the U.S. 1 Summer Fiction issue, I thought I’d share some thoughts about it here.
First off it’s an issue, not a contest. Because it is contained in a newspaper that also includes paid advertising, and because the paper is a product that can increase or decrease only in four-page increments, it’s unlike literary journals, which appear to me to have the luxury of adding pages at will and extending the last few paragraphs of a story onto an otherwise empty page.
Here at U.S. 1 it’s a collision of journalism and literature. Ads come and go right up to the deadline; short stories or poems are sometimes added or deleted shortly after that. In this year’s issue one poet had two poems printed side by side — it was the result of a last-minute change that I will explain at the writers’ reception.
Over the years we have recorded submissions by some 491 different writers. Lots of them are people who submit one year and then never again. For the people who screen the submissions, that makes the task more difficult than you would think. Pick up a piece by Joyce Carol Oates and you have a vague idea of how to evaluate it; pick up a piece by Joyce Carol Oates before she ever had a single word published (the position that many of our writers are in), and you are stepping into a literary black hole.
For the past few years those who screen our submissions have been two people with literary backgrounds of amazing breadth and depth. My friend E. E. Whiting submitted her first short story to U.S. 1 in 2001, “The Seven O’Clock Train of Thought,” a story that was “a nod to P.G. Wodehouse,” she said at the time. She followed it up with three more short stories featuring the same characters — the beginning of a novel in progress, we discovered. This year and last year she submitted poems — this year’s references John Cheever and Norman Rockwell.
Language and literature have been ingredients of Whiting’s daily life since childhood — her father was dean of the faculty at University of Maine. The kind of student who took Latin in high school and college, Whiting majored in medieval studies at Mount Holyoke, took a master’s degree in medieval studies at Connecticut, and then a law degree at UConn.
Her current day job, as a trust and estate lawyer for a major financial institution in Jersey City, affords her nearly three hours a day of more reading via books on tape. Among her recent favorites: Classic mysteries by such writers as Parker, Patterson, and Waldron that are never taught at places like Mount Holyoke. A favorite biography: “Bess of Hardwick,” the story of a minor British noblewoman in the 16th century who, after six marriages, ended up as the second wealthiest woman in Britain — one of those rags to riches stories.
When John Symons first showed up at U.S. 1. in 1992 to deliver newspapers, we only knew that he had taken early retirement from a state job and was interested in getting out of the house a little. When our Summer Fiction issue came along in 1997 he submitted a short story, about a self-important office worker named Frith. We were surprised at how good a writer our deliverer was.
Symons, we have discovered, has wanted to write since he can first remember. His mother says that before he even went to kindergarten (at age 4) he promised that he would write a story for her. Symons majored in English and philosophy at Rutgers College, with — like Whiting — a special interest in medieval literature. He later got a masters from the College of New Jersey and, in his “retirement,” he continues to work with language. One of his endeavors: translating works in French into English for Catholic organizations based in France.
Symons’s current reading list includes British authors Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse and a French writer, Georges Bernanos. “I will read anything, even the back of a cereal box,” says Symons. “And I hardly watch any TV or go to any movies.”
Imagine: Someone who would read U.S. 1 before he tunes into “The Sopranos.” At this juncture, I think the plot is still thickening. But if some strange twist made it end tomorrow, it would still be a rags to riches story in my book.