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.

How has short fiction in The Atlantic evolved, both during your tenure and before?

When I first came to the magazine, I discovered that every story in Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel, which had just won the National Book Award for fiction, had been sent to The Atlantic and rejected. There certainly wasn't any kind of anti-Semitism here, but we just weren't publishing very many Jewish writers. A cultural gap was in place, between writers like Malamud, Roth, and Bellow, who were becoming very well-known and popular in those days, and a more traditionalist style of writing that The Atlantic had been publishing for a long time.

When Bob Manning became the editor of the magazine, we began to publish people the magazine hadn't previously been receptive to. Every change of editors brings a change in taste, but in general, the quality of Atlantic fiction has always been high. And we've always done a good job of developing new and younger writers.

How do you usually work with such writers once you receive a story from them, and why do you do so? Do you think of it as an editor's responsibility?

Hands-on editing is a part of my job that I find most interesting and satisfying. I do want to give every story as fair a reading as I can, and if I see qualities that can profitably be nurtured or helped to find a shape, that seems to me creative and honorable.

Have there been instances where you've worked with a writer and they've made changes you suggested, but in the end the story just didn't hold up?

As a rule, we would never get that far with such a story. We wouldn't take it in the first place if we didn't think it basically worked. In at least a couple of cases we liked a story but didn't like the ending, and asked for a new ending before accepting it. Sometimes we've had to get two or three or four endings before we were satisfied. But in most cases we've eventually accepted such stories, and, as far as I know, in each case the author has been delighted with the result.

Are there any writers that you identified and encouraged who have since become big names? And are there writers you remember turning down who have since become big names?

Yes—both. Louise Erdrich is someone we encouraged for a long time and published before anyone else did. I think we can take some measure of satisfaction in having introduced her to the world of literature. We also came in early in the writing careers of people like Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Carver and John Sayles. And we were the first publisher of James Alan McPherson, who eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for his collection of stories, almost all of which appeared in The Atlantic. Ethan Canin was in The Atlantic three or four times before anybody else got wind of him.

Then there are others like Bobbie Ann Mason and Ann Beattie, whom we published before other magazines did, but only by a matter of weeks. They were sending their work to The New Yorker at the same time they were sending it to The Atlantic, and they were getting encouraging letters from both The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

Stories by Tim O'Brien in The Atlantic:

"The People We Marry" (January 1992)
Magic was his life. His marriage was a trick he did not want to explain.

"The Nuclear Age" (June 1979)
"Nobody wanted to pray, but each of us blessed the bomb without guilt, and Sarah chanted, 'Fission, fusion, critical mass.'"

Of course, we've also turned down a lot of very good work. Tim O'Brien is someone we've published a few times. But we turned down "The Things They Carried," which has now become his most famous story. And we've turned down plenty of other stories that have gone on to get published elsewhere and become widely anthologized. My guess is that someone at The New Yorker or Harper's would have the same recollections of mistakes, if you could call them that. Given that we're only publishing ten stories a year, the opportunity to turn down things that other people end up finding wonderful is greatly increased.

What are your views on experimental fiction and on writers who seem to be focused more on technique than on content?

I like to be open to experimental writing, but my sense about experiments is that some work, some don't. When they work well, I love them. Quite often the stories that are most praised at the National Magazine Awards tend to be somewhat experimental, which tells me that the judges of this kind of competition respond to inventiveness. One hopes it's rewarded only when it works well and not when it doesn't. I see a lot of stories that are experimental but not successful, because they lack any kind of consistency or coherence.

In your introduction to the anthology God: Stories, you describe your conversion to religious faith sometime in the late seventies as a challenging and life-changing experience. Would you say that your entry into the church has in any way informed your approach to your work as an editor, or your thoughts on fiction and what it should accomplish?

Whatever my religious views are, they certainly inform my functioning as an editor, but I don't think they direct it. I don't choose stories I wouldn't have in earlier times, though certain themes now resonate with me more than they once did. The magazine has been edited for years by people with strong faith attachments, which probably explains why so many of the stories I've been able to use in my anthologies originally appeared in The Atlantic. But we've also turned away countless stories that pursue religious themes but aren't satisfying as art.

Just a couple questions about the fiction issue that's coming out in July. Did you want to come at it with any particular theme or theories in mind, or to include a certain range of styles?

We hoped for a balance between well-known writers and beginning writers, and I think we have that. It was a matter of finding work that we thought was interesting and unusual and would be read with satisfaction by the kind of reader who cares about Atlantic fiction.

How long did it take to put the issue together? I realize it's still going on.

It's happened very quickly. Amazingly quickly, it seems to me. After all, we didn't know until a couple of months ago that we weren't going to publish fiction anymore in regular issues and that we were going to put together a special summer issue consisting entirely of fiction.

Do you have any advice for writers who might dream of being included in the next fiction issue?

My advice would be to send me your stories, post-haste. Send me the best you can, and we'll see if it's a good fit, and, if it isn't, try again later.

And any advice to writers on how take rejection?

Try to not to take rejection personally. Remind yourself that almost all magazines that are serious about fiction get far more work than they can possibly consider publishing and that a rejection slip can mean anything from, We think your work is horrible, to We think it's good but we just don't have room for it.

Take your rejection slips and cover a wall with them. I did that when I was in college. I became fascinated by the different paper colors and typefaces and probably sent work to magazines I otherwise wouldn't have, except that I wanted to get copies of their rejection slips.

And did you plan to take the rejections down once you got an acceptance?

I didn't really have a plan, because I wasn't so sure I ever would get an acceptance. But when I finally got one I was so dumbfounded that I had to do something radical. I decided that I was now a professional and should take all those rejection slips down.

Who are your favorite writers?

Oh, gosh. Elmore Leonard, Peter Robinson, Alice Munro, Cormac McCarthy, Evan Hunter at his best, Tony Hillerman at his best. P. D. James and Ruth Rendell. I very much enjoyed Jonathan Franzen's novel The Corrections.

Finally, I wanted to ask what you would say is the role of short fiction in magazines that otherwise focus on politics, social issues, and so on. What purpose does short fiction serve the reader of these magazines?

I think it makes the claim that the magazine has serious cultural interests; it's a way of reminding readers that cultural life is alive and important and necessary. I think we probably wouldn't really know what we were missing until we didn't have it any more.