Interviews June 2005

The Man Behind the Stories

C. Michael Curtis, The Atlantic Monthly's fiction editor, discusses short stories, discovering new writers, and his long tenure at the magazine

This summer The Atlantic is publishing its first ever fiction issue, composed entirely of short stories, related commentary, and poetry. With fiction no longer featured every month, this issue embodies the magazine's continued commitment to a literary tradition envisioned by its founders when they described The Atlantic Monthly as "a magazine of Literature, Art and Politics."

At the helm of this endeavor is C. Michael Curtis, who has been an editor at the magazine for more than four decades and the impresario of its short fiction since 1982. He has edited several acclaimed anthologies, including Contemporary New England Stories (1992), Contemporary West Coast Stories (1993), God: Stories (1998), and Faith: Stories (2003), and during his tenure The Atlantic has been awarded four National Magazine Awards in the category of short fiction, including one this year. Apart from his keen eye for quality, one of Curtis's distinguishing characteristics is the encouragement and advice he provides to fledgling writers. Retrieving the occasional jewel from among the thousands of submissions he receives each month is no mean task, but Curtis asserts that doing so is among the most satisfying parts of his job.

I spoke with Michael Curtis in May, in the offices of The Atlantic in Boston.

Mary Ann Koruth

Mike Curtis
C. Michael Curtis   

You've been at the magazine since 1963, which is more than four decades. What brought you to The Atlantic and what have you enjoyed most about your work here?

The story begins with Peter Davison, our long-time poetry editor. In 1961 he gave a reading at Cornell, where I was getting a PhD in political science. I was the editor of a campus publication somewhat like The Atlantic in that it published poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. And I was a poet and had won a student poetry prize. So Peter asked to see samples of my poetry, which he took back to Boston with him. And a little later he wrote to say that The Atlantic was going to publish one of them and asked if I'd like to come and work at The Atlantic for the summer. I did, and at the end of the summer we talked about the possibility of my staying on. I wanted to finish graduate school, so I went back to Cornell for two more years. In the spring of 1963 Edward Weeks, who was then the editor of the magazine, called me in Ithaca to ask if I might be interested in filling a slot that had just opened up. I said I would, and I've been here ever since.

When you first came here were you mostly responding to poetry submissions?

For at least a while I read some poetry submissions, but that wasn't a major part of my job. I was mainly responsible for reading fiction, unsolicited and otherwise. In those days we had no masthead and we had a very loose sense of organization and a pretty small editorial staff. So our jobs were not described very specifically. Mine very quickly embraced a great many different parts of the magazine.

Were you mentored at all? Was there anyone who worked with you to refine your editing instincts?

Charles Morton, who was then the associate editor, did introduce me to a great many agents and publishers and editors in New York. I took over the editing of letters to the editor from him and began to take on the part of his job that involved a lot of reading and assigning of nonfiction.

When did you take over the editing of fiction?

Not until 1982. For a long time all of us—all the senior editors—read almost everything and offered opinions about everything, and even edited almost everything. In 1982 when Bill Whitworth came in as editor, he and I had a long talk about what I most wanted to do. I told him that I was most interested in the fiction side of the magazine, and he handed that over to me as my particular responsibility. It wasn't the only thing I did—I continued to work with nonfiction as well—but from that point on I was responsible for seeing that the stories got read and edited.

Do you have an editorial ethos or vision that stories must meet in order to be published in The Atlantic? Or is it more a matter of what appeals to your instincts as a reader?

It's somewhere in between. I don't have any fixed rules, though I certainly have biases. I want something to happen. I prefer a story that concerns itself with events and their consequences in the lives of principal characters. I'm not partial to what you might call a sketch or a glimpse. I also read every story looking for distinctive dialogue, strong mechanics, and skillful use of figurative language—things that create a sense of artfulness rather than just a plodding working-through of plot.

Given the magazine's long and venerable literary tradition, do you feel that in a sense you have to slip on an Atlantic "cloak," so to speak, when you come into your office?

I don't think any editor can do any more than make his or her best judgment based on reading and experience. It pleases me to think that of the 150 years The Atlantic has been around, I've been part of almost a third of that legacy. So I feel as if that cloak is at least partly mine.

Am I right that Atlantic stories get fact-checked?

Yes. Fact-checking a story is an interesting process, because writers of fiction aren't pretending that everything is literally true. The process usually involves raising the question with the writer—Do you want to be put in the position of declaring as truthful something that's demonstrably not true, even if it's of no real importance to your story? I'm in the midst of that kind of discussion right now with one of the writers in the fiction issue. A good bit of his story takes place in the Plaza Hotel in New York, and it includes several references to plastic keycards for hotel rooms. But we've discovered that the Plaza Hotel doesn't use plastic keycards—they provide metal keys that fit into locks. We'll probably change that detail. If the author insisted on plastic, though, we'd stay with it, because a story need not be accurate in such small details.

I know The Atlantic receives thousands and thousands of submissions every month. Is it really worth it to dig through all the slush to uncover the occasional jewel? How often does that happen?

I do think it's worthwhile. We'd rather invest the effort, even at the risk of wasting time with bad work, to find the improbable, utterly unexpected story by a writer we've never heard of. That happens about four or five times a year. We uncover a lot of talent as we go along, though we don't have room for more than a few such stories each year.

Over the past four decades, have you noticed the themes of the fiction submissions changing with the political and social climate of the times?

In some striking cases, yes. In the sixties and seventies, for example, we read many stories having to do with civil rights. In the seventies we also got a lot of stories about Vietnam, written either by people who'd been there, or by family members of soldiers. And more recently, after 9/11, we probably got a hundred or so stories featuring 9/11-related issues.

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Mary Ann Koruth is an intern for The Atlantic Online

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