B.J. Hollars came of age in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is now an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama, where he has served as nonfiction editor and assistant fiction editor for Black Warrior Review. As an instructor of English and creative writing, he longed for an anthology of stories that would connect with readers of all ages and give them a common ground on which to explore their own writing. Finding none, he set out to create his own: You Must Be This Tall to Ride: Contemporary Authors Take You Inside the Story, which offers 20 original works of fiction and nonfiction, along with essays and exercises written by the authors, designed to give readers a glimpse into their inspiration and craft.
B.J. took time out of his regular writing and teaching schedule to talk about the value of coming-of-age stories and the insights he’s gained as a student, writer, and editor of creative writing.
What inspired this project? Why “coming-of-age” as the theme?
I think the sheer number of coming-of-age stories that appeared to be homeless initially inspired me. While many of the stories in the collection have been previously published, many appear in You Must Be This Tall to Ride for the first time. One example of the “homeless story” is Ryan Van Meter’s “Youth Group.” I’m a former nonfiction editor for Black Warrior Review, and while the piece was ultimately rejected there, I was convinced it needed a home. Eventually, I included it here. If I can help drag the coming-of-age story out of the darkness and into the light, I am only too happy to do so.
Also, I wanted to help build more credibility for the genre. The phrase “coming-of-age” seems to put a bad taste in people’s mouths, and I hoped to correct that. When I tell people I often write coming-of-age stories they assume I’m the executive producer of Dawson’s Creek or The O.C. The bottom line is this: the literary coming-of-age deserves more credit, and I think that the stories included in the anthology helps to reinforce this.
Finally (and I say this a bit sheepishly), I have a bit of an obsession with the “coming-of-age” theme. I believe that knowing one’s roots, one’s formation story, says more about a person than any other indicator. Hearing about someone’s coming-of-age is like boarding a time machine and understanding how that person came to be. Further, it’s one experience all readers share. I wanted to find common ground with the readers, and I think acne and prom night and all the typical coming-of-age motifs help us cover quite a bit of ground, which allows us to focus more on writing than any one genre.
How did you choose the stories and writers for this anthology?
The truth is, if I had the pages for it, I could quite easily have chosen an additional twenty stories to go alongside the first twenty. There is an abundance of incredible coming-of-age stories out in the world. Likewise (I should probably note), there is an equal abundance of not-so-great coming-of-age stories (though I’ve probably penned most of those myself). These stories came to me in different ways. First, as I started listing possible stories, a few titles jumped to mind. Ben Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh” was a story I’d read as an undergraduate that caused the entire class to go numb. Ryan Boudinot’s “The Littlest Hitler” had a similar effect. Then, I started searching out authors I admired, culled through their work, and found the stories that seemed to best fit the theme. Finally, I went through every literary magazine I could get my hands on and hunted stories that way as well.
None of the included writers would probably pigeonhole themselves as a “coming-of-age” writer or a “young adult” writer or anything else. They’d probably just call themselves writers. And I think that’s important. No distinctions. We simply all have a coming-of-age story to share, and these writers were kind enough to share theirs with me.
What was your favorite aspect of authoring this book?
I loved working with the writers. This project allowed me to correspond with dozens of authors whose work I greatly admire. And every time I received an e-mail form Aimee Bender or Dan Chaon or Stuart Dybek or any of the other writers collected in the anthology, I was (I have to admit), a bit star struck. Now, I feel like we’re all old friends (or at least good acquaintances), but at the start, I was still a bit dreamy-eyed in my admiration for their work. Early on, a fellow editor warned me that trying to corral twenty writers to do twenty tasks was a bit like “herding cats.” Thankfully, I didn’t have to do any herding at all.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Can you remember any “telling” moments from your own childhood?
It’s funny how often this question seems to come up in writing circles. I think most writers continually try to pinpoint this moment both in themselves and others. And I suppose the primary reason for this fascination is because by pinpointing that moment, we’re pinpointing a kind of coming-of-age moment in our own lives.
One Christmas I asked for a cardboard cut-out of a computer keyboard. We didn’t have an actual computer yet, but I practiced typing on that cardboard for hours. I guess after that kind of intense training I could have either ended up as the world’s greatest secretary or an average writer, and I think my imagination led me toward writer.
Anyway, I suppose the signs were always there. I wanted notebooks while my friends wanted Super Mario 3. They wanted to watch movies while I wanted to write them. I suppose there was nowhere else for me to go but to delve into what I liked most.
As a teacher, what are the mistakes you see new writers making most frequently?
New writers make many of the same mistakes as more seasoned writers. The primary difference: a new writer will assume the story is done when the last word is typed while the seasoned writer understands that the true work begins in the second draft. I think new writers (and I include myself here) have a tendency to write the story, print it off, and send it blindly into the world. But later, a little voice begins to develop that shouts, “Discretion, Writer! Discretion!” In fact, these days I hardly print out any stories. Even when I feel a draft is done and is ready to send, I still refuse to print it out at home. I require myself to walk to some faraway printer at the university so I have one last opportunity to think the story through, one last chance to give it the “final, final” read before pressing “print” and regretting it.
If writing is a marriage, the first draft of a story is the honeymoon while the real hard work and compromise comes in all subsequent drafts. I tell my students that a story isn’t complete until you realize that you’ve memorized it. Sometimes it takes that many drafts to get it right. Time and endurance are the two most important attributes a writer can possess. Talent is far less important.
What bit(s) of advice do you find yourself repeating most often to your students?
Put your name at the top of your paper!
But in all seriousness, I often find myself telling students to “find the heart of the story.” It sounds like a cliché straight from the annals of a Lifetime movie, but it’s the only way I know to explain it. Another phrase I often repeat (and I apologize for all the anatomical references), is “Look for the lifeblood.” To sum up: I tell students to find the heart and blood.
The stories I appreciate the most manage to do both of these things. This time, let’s compare a story to the body: if a heart stops beating or blood stops flowing, the body is already dead. I think the same is true for writing. I want my students to set the proper conditions so that their work can live and breathe and thrive in the world, and I think that’s impossible if the heartbeat isn’t there.
What’s the best piece of writing advice a teacher ever gave you?
It wasn’t advice; it was an experience. I once had a professor who allowed me to partake in an independent project that I called my “Story-A-Day Experiment.” Basically, I forced myself to write a 2,000-word story every day for several months. It was horrific and wonderful all at the same time. The experiment was great because it required so much of me. I couldn’t do anything without keeping my eyes peeled for the following day’s story. The downside, of course, is that no one should ever try to write a story a day. I often say that this was the time in my life when I wrote “all the words in the wrong order.” But it helped me find my voice, and it helped me discover what subjects I wanted to write about. The professor read several of these stories, and then I placed them in a three-hole binder and promptly hid them beneath my bed. I look back at those stories now, not as anything worth sharing with others, but as a kind of dissection of my formation as a writer. If I wasn’t certain about my dedication prior to that experiment, I was certainly convinced afterward.
What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?
Other people’s writing. Someone once said that anyone who writes more than he reads is a fool. I believe this (which means, yes, I was certainly a fool during my story-a-day experiment). There’s no better way to refuel than to get as far away from the computer as possible. Books offer a kind of “break” from writing while simultaneously recharging the writer’s batteries. Nothing excites me more than a crisp line in somebody else’s work. I always put a book down more inspired than I was prior to reading it.
My backup answer for this question was walking the dog. Reading and writing can’t be everything, and a little fresh air has always done me well.
If you could encapsulate what you hope readers will take away from the book in a sentence or two, what would it be?
It is my great hope that readers will connect with the stories, marvel at the essays, and take the writing exercises to heart. This book should inspire as much as it educates.
If you could change one thing about the literary marketplace, what would it be?
I think it’s easy to become disgruntled at the “marketplace,” but every time I receive a rejection I remind myself, “You’re just not ready yet.” I mentioned before that time and endurance are the two most valuable attributes a writer can possess. I think that’s especially true of publishing. Also (and this might be a bit naïve), the marketplace does a great job of holding you at arm’s length until you are ready. The tragedy, of course, is that I know any number of fine and worthy writers who still receive the stiff arm from the market. There’s always grumbling about the “commercialization” of writing, and the notion that if I were serious about publishing then I would write about vampires and magic and The Jonas Brothers. But I remain steadfast in my belief that we should all write what we’re passionate about and try to drive the market rather than allowing the market to drive us.
Do you have any advice for new authors on the process of getting published or the author/editor relationship?
While I am certainly no expert myself, I’ve found that trying in earnest to get published isn’t always the clearest path. Rather, try in earnest to write a great story that you can be proud of. I’ve wasted hundreds of dollars on stamps sending out stories prematurely. Find a way to navigate between the “unfinished” and the “finished.” Probably, no matter how “finished” you think a piece is, it still has room for improvement. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t send a baby into the world without preparing him for the dangers ahead. Likewise, you should allow your story to mature as well.
In regards to the author/editor relationship, I think it’s crucial that the editor is wholly invested in the idea. I can’t tell you how many hundreds of stories I read in order to come up with the twenty that make up this anthology. And I chose this particular assortment, not necessarily because they were infinitely better than the others, but because these stories offer particular insights and provide particular examples that would prove most beneficial for the readers.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on just about everything other than a poetry book. Writers often describe themselves as a “fiction writer” or a “poet,” but I’ve discovered that it’s far better just to call oneself a writer. This way, you can write fiction, nonfiction, poems, screenplays, graphic novels, and children’s books without having to explain yourself.
I’m a lover of the short story, so I’m always at work on those. Also, I’m trying to piece together a short story collection, and I’m perpetually in the early stages of a novel. Another side project is a memoir with an emphasis on music’s role in my life.
Have you ever written a coming-of-age story? If so, where can we find it?
I’m not sure I’ve ever written anything but coming-of-age stories. Much of my short story collection is made up of these types of tales, and they have been published in a variety of magazines such as Barrelhouse, Mid-American Review, Memorious, The Bellingham Review, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Night Train, and The Adirondack Review, among others.
Any final thoughts?
Always. First, thanks for sitting through this interview and for considering the book. It means a lot. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the stories and essays, and if the book is used in a classroom environment, I would be equally anxious to web chat with the class and hear the student’s views.
And second, whether you’re a new writer or a veteran, let’s all just take a moment to revel in what it is we’re doing. It’s far easier to become a discouraged writer than a successful writer, but a list of publications in no way ensures success. I’m a writer because it’s the hardest thing I could think of to do. Certainly, you have your own reasons. Regardless, we are writing at great risk with few benefits other than the sheer joy of what we manage to produce. But that’s enough. And there’s an entire network of writers all around you who are doing the very same thing. So keep it up. Writing often feels like a solitary endeavor, but we’re all in this together.
For more information about B.J. Hollars and You Must Be This Tall to Ride, visit bjhollars.com.
Read an excerpt featuring a short story by Laura Van Den Burg