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Breaking In: Josh Barkan

Josh Barkan is the author of Mexico (January 24, 2017; Hogarth/Crown Books), a collection of short stories that capture the beauty, strangeness, and brutality of life in modern Mexico. He's also published two other books: a novel, Blind Speed, and a collection of stories, Before Hiroshima. His writing has appeared in Esquire and as a contributor to The Boston Book Review. With his wife, a painter from Mexico, he divides his time between Mexico City and Roanoke, Virginia, where he teaches at the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins. He has taught writing at Harvard, Boston University, and New York University.

Josh Barkan, Mexico
Josh Barkan

PRE-MEXICO: In manuscript form, Mexico was the runner-up for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, judged by Jaime Manrique and awarded by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. It was the runner-up for the Juniper Prize for Fiction, judged by Edie Meidav and awarded by the University of Massachusetts Press/Amherst. The story “The Kidnapping,” from the collection, won the Lightship International Short Story Prize, judged by Tessa Hadley.

TIME FRAME: I wrote the stories—fairly quickly—over two summers. With the second half of the collection, I wrote the stories in the middle of the night, whereas I am usually a morning writer. I wanted to experiment with the flow that comes writing in the middle of the night.

ENTER THE AGENT: I noticed that Philip Spitzer represented Andre Dubus, a writer I admire a lot. So I sent Philip a query letter; he read the collection and wanted to represent my work.

[The real secret to getting an agent.]

BIGGEST SURPRISES: I was surprised at how inclusive and respectful the whole editorial, marketing, and graphic design team were at Hogarth. They invited me to give suggestions for the cover. They asked for my input with the design of the book. They always respected my final decisions on the text. Though part of a big publishing group—Penguin Random House—they run Hogarth like a literary boutique, with lots of attention to the author. The biggest learning experience is always the process of copyediting. It’s a bit of a tug of war, to preserve your voice, while doing the necessary editing to make sure everything is correct.

WHAT I DID RIGHT: Persistence. Not letting myself be defeated when the hundreds of rejection letters came, at different times. Slowly building up to a bigger press, by publishing two books with smaller, reputable presses, before. Applying for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and receiving the grant. But mostly, making sure that I wrote only what I believed in—taking risks with form and content—and making sure that the writing was tight before sending it out. You have to really know that your work is ready before you send it out, so that you can withstand the rejections.

[Conquer your writing fears.]

WHAT I WOULD'VE DONE DIFFERENT: Maybe I experimented too much with form in my second book, Blind Speed. But at the time that felt necessary. I think I could have considered the marketability of the themes I was exploring, a bit more. It’s wonderful to write only what deeply interests you, but I think it took me too long to realize that there has to be a real audience for the subjects I want to explore.

PLATFORM: I build readership by giving readings wherever I can, communicating about my new book via Facebook, and developing my own website to give information to those who are curious about my work. I've attended some bigger gatherings of writers, like the AWP meetings, but not as frequently as I should. I also believe meeting other writers of quality—building genuine relationships with them—is the best way to develop readers, over the long run. Those writers help you to sustain a career teaching and getting grants, and most importantly, they keep reminding you why you started to write to begin with—to share ideas and observations that have some kind of imperative, a feeling of urgency. Without those things you can’t keep writing, and by extension you can’t develop your readership, over time. For most, I think readership is a slow development, so you have to find ways to simply keep writing professionally.

ADVICE FOR WRITERS: Keep your butt in the chair. Try to write a page every day. Small quantities add up. Get in the zone, by writing in the same place, preferably at the same time, so that you can tap into your subconscious, which is where the best details come from. Think about rhythm and the sound of your prose.

NEXT UP: I have the draft of a novel written set in New York City, which involves a mass shooting by an NYU student in Washington Square. The novel deals with everything from global warming, and secrets wanted by the FBI, to a character who used to be in the circus. It’s a very contemporary feeling novel.

Interested in reading about how other authors broke in? Every issue of Writer's Digest features three debut authors, with advice on how they did it, what they learned, and why you can do it, too. The latest issue of Writer's Digest is on sale now.

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If you're an agent looking to update your information or an author interested in contributing to the GLA blog or the next edition of the book, contact Cris Freese at

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