For the first time since the mid ’80s, the Washington City Paper is publishing fiction. In fact, the copy hitting the streets today is dubbed “The Fiction Issue.” It contains four short stories: one solicited from Eugenia Kim, author of the celebrated novel “The Calligrapher’s Daughter,” and three more drawn from submissions to an open invitation posted online last September.
Former City Paper arts editor Mark Athitakis served as the lead judge, assisted by managing editor Jonathan Fischer and editor Mike Madden. They asked for previously unpublished stories about Washington and eventually received 58.
“The winners stuck out,” Athitakis told me by phone. “But one thing that I was gratified by is that there were a lot of submissions by people who were studying fiction and were concerned about fiction and had some sense of how a good story might work.”
The three winners are David A. Taylor (Washington), Arnebya Herndon (Washington), and Anca L. Szilagyi (Seattle). Their stories are bittersweet tales of ordinary people. No hunky senators seducing their secretaries in the Capitol or killer agents tracking down al-Qaeda; just people you know dealing with divorce, depression and illness as best they can.
That’s what Athitakis was hoping for but didn’t know if he’d receive. “Fiction about D.C. — the real D.C. that people actually live in — doesn’t get spotlighted all that much,” he said. “But these writers got it. They understood what we were looking for: an interest in D.C. on the street level.” More than 50 different locations appeared in the submissions — from Metro stations to Politics & Prose.
(To be fair, not everybody got it. One strange story that won’t see the light of publication was told from the perspective of a urinal cake in a FedEx restroom. . . .)
At a time when newspaper book sections have vanished faster than indie bookstores, it’s gratifying to see fiction given a chance alongside the usual restaurant reviews and Dan Savage’s sex advice.
Reached at his office by phone, Fisher said that he and Madden “wanted to come up with a few ways to shake the City Paper out of its usual rhythms.”
That’s a nice change of pace for readers, too.
Ron Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.