B.J. Hollars is the editor of the anthology and online magazine You Must Be This Tall To Ride. Today, he takes some questions about projects past, present, future and discusses some other fun things too.
1. How tall exactly must you be to ride?
5’7.”Â Â That way you can’t slip between the bar during that ride that spins you upside down and looks like a Viking ship.
But to read the book, you can be any height. Â We don’t discriminate.
2. Ride what?
Like I said, the Viking ship. Â But also, metaphorically speaking (at least for the anthology), “the ride”Â is just reading the coming of age stories and trying to write a few yourself.
3. What is your favorite coming-of-age novel?
Well, the most popular answer is probably The Catcher in the Rye, but I think there are plenty of more modern ones to point to as well. Â Like John Green’s Looking for Alaska and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being A Wallflower. Â Â I’m forgetting like a thousand, though. Â Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine is probably my favorite book of all time. Â It’s sort of about two brothers coming of age in 1928. Â Lots of ice-cream and scary ravines and trolley cars. Â You know, great stuff. Â Sentimental sure, but he sort of invented it.
4. What are the three main characteristics of a good coming of age story? What is the biggest downfall of a less than successful coming of age story?
The biggest downfall is easy: resorting to the same cliches of the genre without enhancing them in some way. Â Most of the stories I have to reject suffer from the same old coming of age sentimentality that we’ve all seen a hundred times before. Â I’m guilty of this in my own writing too, of course. Â I think we cling to the familiar because we want others to recognize the experience, but at the same time we want the experience to be unique. Â That’s the fine line all writers must walk, but I think it’s even more difficult in a genre such as this. Â How many times do we really want to see the quarterback of the football team date the head cheerleader? Â For all the stories we’ve heard there are still hundreds of stories that haven’t been given a voice. Â I like those unrepresented stories the most. Â Or at least a new twist on an old tale.
The three best characteristics are originality, strong premise, and strong prose. Â The same as all writing, probably.
5. I see you’re on the staff of the Black Warrior Review? How’s my submission doing? Is it lonely? Has it made new friends?
I’m actually a former staffer. Â I’m the former nonfiction editor and former assistant fiction editor. Â I really enjoyed reading for the magazine, but You Must Be This Tall To Ride has been an all-consuming task. Â But to answer you’re question, yes, I heard your submission is quite popular and made all kinds of friends with the other submissions.
6. So there’s both a book and an online magazine for You Must Be This Tall to Ride. Tell us about these projects. How did they come about? Why are you so interested in coming of age stories? Or is the better question are you interested in coming of age stories?
I’m not sure how the project came about. Â I think I’ve always been fascinated by this genre in my own writing, but I always felt coming of age stories sort of got a bad rap. Â I wanted to prove that great writers delve into the coming of age story as well. Â Too often people hear about my appreciation for “coming of age”Â stories and think I watch Dawson’s Creek (ed: hey! Dawson’s Creek is awesome. Teens. They’re just like us!) reruns and own all The Jonas Brothers CD. Â Not the case, I assure you. Â The more I read literary journals the more I came across these incredible stories. Â I started keeping a list of authors whose work I admired. Â When I contacted these writers, they all had a story to share. Â I was proud to put them together alongside the author’s original essays and writing exercises.
Yes, I am interested in coming of age stories, certainly, but the “why”Â portion of the question is much more difficult to answer. Â I guess I just figured there are a few common experiences all humans share: birth, death, and the awkward coming of age that occurs somewhere between those events. Â Everyone has a coming of age story to tell, and I think most people look back at their own growing up experiences with a kind of strange nostalgia that doesn’t occur during any other period of life.
7. Other than PANK, what is your favorite magazine?
Don’t make me choose. Â I love lit mags and think all the editors are doing a huge service to the writing community. Â Of course I’m a Black Warrior fan, but I also enjoy Hobart, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, among others. Â One of the best perks of working with Black Warrior Review was that the office held an incredible library of current lit mags. Â I always really enjoyed getting to read such incredible work.
8. I know from your submission to PANK, excellent by the way, that you sometimes write with a partner. Do you guys ever have any dramatic conflicts that would make for good gossip? What’s it like writing with a partner? How does it benefit your writing process?
Oh yeah, whenever we disagree about a word or a phrase we just arm wrestle to see who wins. Â If that doesn’t do it, we joust.
Just kidding. Â The collaboration with my friend Brendan has been incredible. Â He’s the poet and I’m the fiction writer, so he managed to take my general plot and make everything beautiful. Â I sort of think of us as a couple of ice sculptors where I typically take these huge, uncontrollable swings and he takes care of all the details and actually made it look like something good. Â His job is the harder one, undoubtedly. Â But the collaborative process was also incredibly invigorating. Â Writing can be so secluded and private, but when we collaborated, we were sending drafts back to each other several times a day. Â I probably checked my email every hour for six months just to see what slight tweaks we’d made from draft to draft.
9. Do you like your MFA program? Have you ever considered committing a crime during a workshop? If so, which crime and why?
Is stealing other people’s wonderful stories considered a crime? Â Probably not wherever the hell James Frey is from—
But yes, I sincerely love the MFA program at The University of Alabama and we’ve managed to keep the crimes to a minimum. Â The program’s great because when we’re not in class we’re typically playing flag football or basketball or grilling bratwursts—three of my favorite activities.
10. What does it take to be a man?
Oh geez, you stumbled across that old thing? Â I started that podcast the day I got engaged, trying to commemorate the occasion or something. Â Then, a few months later (and after only a few more episodes) I realized I had no idea what it meant to be a man. Â Probably, that’s what actually spurred my coming of age obsession now that I think about it. Â Because I didn’t know the answer to that question. Â Probably a lot of heartbreak. Â That, and being awarded the Presidential Fitness Award in gym class. Â It took me like a decade to fulfill the necessary number of pull-ups (two), but man, receiving that award was sweet and I sure felt like a man.
11. You seem pretty busy. Do you have time for important things like TV? What’s your favorite show right now?
If you mean walking the dog and grilling bratwursts then yes, I’m incredibly busy. Â After all, those brats aren’t going to grill themselves. Â But when I’m not up to my ears in dog walks, yes, I watch an absurd amount of television. Â I like to think of it as “research”Â for my next story. Â The “watch instantly”Â feature on Netflix has started to ruin my life. Â I just finished The Tudors. Â My wife and I have also been flying through Big Love, In Treatment, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, True Blood and The West Wing. Â Pretty much if it’s on HBO or has Martin Sheen playing the president, we’re all over it.
12. You Must Be This Tall to Ride and PANK meet at a bar, have drinks, hit it off. Do they a. go to a sleazy motel and have a one night stand or b. make out in the bar but leave it at that or c. exchange phone numbers, start dating, and live happily ever after? Show your math.
Well, according to the transitive property, and when taking wind speed into account, and the Bernoulli Effect—I’d have to go with B. Â After all, we’re talking “coming of age”Â stories here and having You Must Be This Tall To Ride losing his virginity to PANK would be too cliche. Â I’d say they’d make out, maybe work the bra some, and then leave everyone slightly unfulfilled. Â That seems like the coming of age thing to do.
13. Duotrope: Virtue or Vice?
It’s never personally offended me or challenged me to a duel so I’d have to say virtue. Â Anything that helps spread the good word about literary magazines has to be a virtue, right? Â Unless that thing was shaped like a crossbow that shot poison arrows—
14. Does your editorial work influence your writing? How?
It makes me more self-conscious. Â And while this might seem like a pretty terrible thing to say, some of the weaker submissions help me to learn from others’ mistakes. Â Clearly, I haven’t read nearly enough submissions to make me some kind of expert, but the weaker submissions—while not typically published—are often very helpful to other writers. Â My work on Black Warrior Review and Â You Must Be This Tall To Ride have been invaluable to me. Â I think I’m a better writer today because I’ve had the privilege to read so much other work.
15. What’s on the horizon for You Must Be This Tall to Ride? Will there be another book?
I sure hope so. Â I guess the answer to that resides in how the first book does. Â I divided up my advance between the contributors so I’m not making money off the thing. Â I just truly believe in the writers and the work and so I’ve been doing all I can to try to get the book into as many classrooms as possible. Â I think this anthology is unique from others because the essays really show the “behind the scenes”Â of the stories which is something you can’t often find in other anthologies. Â I’ll continue collecting the best stories and featuring them on the online magazine but nothing would make me happier than the opportunity to make a Vol. II.
16. What question should I have asked?
If I’m tall enough to ride. Â Yes. Â I think so. Â I’m 5’9.”Â Â But you should see me on the basketball court. Â You’d probably swear I was like 5’9 Â½.” (ed. That is a good question!)