The Story Behind the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book, Prize Part II
by Betsy Teter, Founder & Publisher, Hub City Press
So in 2007, one of the greatest fiction editors in America joined 10 local writers around a folding table at the Hub City offices, as we sorted through what books we would publish next.
I remember him grousing, "You need to publish books that look more like New York books." To keep him engaged, I suggested he edit a collection of short stories that would be "the essential fiction of Spartanburg." Hub City had recently decided to begin publishing fiction, striking a deal with the South Carolina Arts Commission to publish the SC First Novel Prize. We also had begun a writer-in-residence program that was heavy on community service, and that summer I sent an email to a 28-year-old poet named Patrick Whitfill in Lubbock, Texas: "Your project will be to help Mike Curtis edit a fiction anthology." Whitfill's grandmother had been an Atlantic subscriber her whole life—still clipping the stories she liked best—and the whole family was flabbergasted. Whitfill remembers that Curtis "didn't really need my help, but I couldn't stop myself from emailing friends and colleagues from graduate school, casually mentioning my (not-really) apprenticeship to C. Michael Curtis."
The title story in that anthology was Michel Stone's "Expecting Goodness," and among the 20 pieces in the collection was the first published story of Thomas Pierce, one of Curtis's students at Wofford. Pierce, later published by Curtis in The Atlantic, went on to place multiple stories in The New Yorker and was named one of the winners of National Book Foundation's "5 under 35" prize.
Meanwhile, we kept feeding Mike novels to read. Most he rejected, but we inched toward becoming a publisher known for solid literary fiction.
One of the early successes was Michel Stone's The Iguana Tree, a fast-paced novel of a Mexican border crossing gone bad. With Curtis's help, she had written and rewritten the book. On one particular day he told her to get rid of two narrators and to completely change the end of the book. "I thought he was nuts for about four hours, then I began the work. Six months later we met again in his Wofford office. I handed him two dozen cookies and the revised manuscript. A week or so later he called me. 'This novel is quite good,' he said." The Iguana Tree has sold 14,000 copies for us. Stone's next book went to Nan Talese at Doubleday.
A year later a Spartanburg writer named Susan Tekulve won the South Carolina First Novel Prize with her manuscript, In the Garden of Stone. Curtis had been a screener in that contest and had gotten quite attached to the story of three generations of an immigrant Sicilian family in the coal country of West Virginia. He asked for a meeting with Tekulve at a local German deli, and Tekulve showed up with a box of apple and blueberry turnovers for him. ("Locally, Mike’s sweet tooth is almost as well known as his editing," she says.)
Curtis arrived in shorts and a baseball cap, she remembers, carrying under his arm her 360-page book manuscript, its pages softened and earmarked, fluttering with neon orange and pink Post-It notes. "He surprised me by telling stories about his own hardscrabble childhood. He ended with a harrowing tale that involved his elderly mother, living alone and failing, piling too many newspapers too close to the burner on her oven. I recall being amazed at what a good storyteller he was."
Curtis told her she needed to fill out a murder scene in the book. Then when she did, he cut it in half. She followed all his instructions on the Post-It notes. In the Garden of Stone received a starred review from Kirkus and was a spring pick from Library Journal.
Along the way, I was becoming a better fiction editor too.
Curtis and I haven't always agreed on books. I have taken books he didn't love, and I have turned down books he campaigned hard for. But we moved forward, usually with both of us tinkering with the novels. Over the Plain Houses (2016) by Julia Franks was named an NPR book of the year and won the Southern Book Prize; Minnow (2015) by James McTeer became a Kirkus book of the year. This year, Curtis has been deeply involved with a forthcoming Hub City novel set in World War II Czechoslovakia, The Wooden King by Thomas McConnell, a professor at one of the local colleges. “Mike has been through my whole novel—all 387 typescript pages—three times,” McConnell says. “After an editing feat like that, I know this: give him a sharp pencil and a line to hone and he's a happy man.”
This spring, Hub City received a major contribution from a donor who wanted to endow a $10,000 prize for a first collection of short stories, judged in its first year by Lee K. Abbott. There was no question who we wanted to name this prize after: C. Michael Curtis. Our donor agreed, and Curtis praised the choice of Abbott, whose work he had published in The Atlantic three times. For his part, Abbott wrote me in an email: “Do know how honored I am to be part of this project which recognizes the invaluable service Mike has given to literary America over the decades. I am just one of hundreds of writers he has brought to important print. More personally, my career would not be what it has become without his sharp eye and even sharper pencil. Would that more were like him.”
Because Hub City retains its early focus as a publisher of Southern writers, the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize is open to writers in 13 Southern states. Submissions are now open and will close Dec. 31. Curtis will serve as our senior reader, whittling down the list of story collections that make their way to the final judge.
Between now and then, Curtis will read much more fiction for Hub City. As I leave him at the restaurant, he makes sure I know that he wants more manuscripts to read. I come home and crank up the copy machine.