Lois and me: A guest dispatch from Will Allison

Will Allison‘s first novel, What You Have Left, depicts cycles of abandonment and longing set in motion across generations by a father’s disappearance. The writing is as precise as the story is emotionally true, and, when I finished the book and read Allison’s author bio, I wondered if he would attribute his concision to reading and editing manuscripts for STORY and Zoetrope: All Story. He answers my question at length below.

Of all the things I learned from Lois Rosenthal, perhaps the most valuable was impatience.

Lois was the editor of the Cincinnati-based literary magazine STORY, which, despite lasting only ten years (in that particular incarnation), was a five-time finalist for and two-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Fiction.

Lois loved going up against The New Yorker and Harper’s and The Atlantic, but what she liked best was helping launch the careers of young writers: Chris Adrian, Judy Budnitz, Junot Díaz, Nathan Englander, Heidi Julavits — the list goes on. She helped launch mine, too, though at the time, it was less a writing career than an editorial career — one I thought I didn’t want.

In the summer of 1996, two months after I finished an MFA at Ohio State, I got a call from Lee K. Abbott, the program’s director. He said STORY was looking for a new managing editor, and he’d passed my name along to Lois.

Maybe Lee felt sorry for me. After failing to land several teaching jobs I hadn’t really cared about, I’d moved back to South Carolina to sell baseball cards at an antiques mall. That it was a dead-end job didn’t matter, because my “real” job was writing. I told myself that if I used my brain to do anything more than just make ends meet, I’d be taking precious energy away from my fiction.

A few days after Lee called, I got a call from Lois and her husband, Dick, STORY‘s publisher. We talked about the magazine and the job — a long, pleasant conversation, at the conclusion of which I basically told them no thanks. My goal wasn’t to work at STORY, it was to be in STORY.

That night on the phone, my future wife basically told me I was crazy. What young, underemployed writer wouldn’t want a job — with benefits — at the country’s most celebrated lit mag? I found her arguments persuasive. The next day I wrote Dick and Lois a letter telling them how desperately I wanted to work at STORY.

Lois took mercy on me and mailed out an editing test, the meat of which was a group of three anonymous manuscripts. My assignment was to pretend I was an editor at STORY. Should we publish the manuscripts, and why or why not?

Apparently I did okay on the test, because Dick and Lois invited me to Cincinnati for an interview. I liked them immediately. They were stylish, collegial, and passionate about the arts and politics. I mistook them for displaced New Yorkers; in fact, they were Cincinnati born and bred.

They were also quite wealthy, thanks to the family business, F&W Publications, which was best-known for its stable of Writer’s Digest books and magazines. STORY was an odd corporate bird. Whereas the rest of F&W existed to turn a profit, STORY existed to celebrate Lois’ love of short fiction. STORY was also the lucky beneficiary of F&W’s considerable marketing and sales muscle, which eventually made it another kind of odd bird: a lit mag that broke even.

In those days, F&W occupied a sleek Art Deco building constructed in the 1920s as a Coca-Cola bottling facility. After a tour (STORY‘s office had its own balcony), I went to lunch with Lois and the rest of the editorial staff: Laurie Henry, STORY‘s quietly brilliant, longtime associate editor.

As luck would have it, Lois and I hit it off. I was undaunted by the fact that she’d burned through five managing editors in just six years. She was undaunted by my buzz cut (though she feared it meant I was a Republican) and by the fact that, in my editing test, I’d recommended rejecting a story she’d already accepted — by Joyce Carol Oates.

For the next four years, I had the good fortune to be Lois’ right-hand man, first as managing editor, then as executive editor. It was the greatest job on earth. I loved working with authors, I loved panning for gold in the slush pile (though really this was Laurie’s forte), and I especially loved editing.

I did have some trouble getting up to speed, though. Having only recently left the world of MFA creative-writing workshops, I was used to dutifully, painstakingly giving each and every manuscript its full due. Lois didn’t play that. If a story failed to hook her by the first page or two, she was on to the next. I was struck by her ability (and Laurie’s) to plow through a bin of manuscripts in a couple of hours, emerging with only a handful of stories requiring closer attention. It wasn’t just that she read with great confidence — in her taste, in her ability to recognize quality — but also with great impatience. How dare an unworthy story waste her time!

I, on the other hand, felt a sympathetic agony for all the manuscripts so quickly consigned to the reject pile. As a writer who regularly submitted to magazines, I knew all too well how it felt to be on the receiving end of a rejection slip. Obviously, these were not productive feelings for the managing editor of a publication that received nearly twenty thousand submissions a year. I had to get over it and fast, so I quickly embraced Lois’ slash-and-burn mentality as the survival tool that it was.

But her impatience was instructive to me as a writer, too, an emphatic reminder that it’s not the reader’s job to cut you slack but rather your job to make sure the reader is never bored. The irony, of course, is that it takes a great deal of patience to write a piece of fiction that won’t leave a reader like Lois impatient.

During the time I worked at STORY, I became a much slower writer, trying to hold my fiction to an ever higher standard (that being the work we published in the magazine). Whereas I’d once cranked out stories in a matter of weeks, I now spent months, sometimes a year or more, on a single story. I also started what would become a short novel, What You Have Left, which ended up taking seven years to finish.

If STORY were still around, I’d still be working there (the good Lois willing), but in 1999, Dick decided to sell F&W so he and Lois could devote more time to philanthropy. Not wanting to see STORY fall into the mercenary hands of a publicly held corporation, they chose to shutter the magazine rather than include it in the sale of the company. STORY published its final issue in early 2000.

Lois has been plenty busy since then. She and Dick built an arts academy for underprivileged kids, funded the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art (the first major American museum designed by a woman, architect Zaha Hadid), gave the Cincinnati Museum of Art $2.15 million to keep admission free in perpetuity, became chief benefactors of the Institute for Justice at the University of Cincinnati, and, well, you get the picture — major good works supporting social justice and the arts.

About the only thing Lois isn’t doing these days is reading manuscripts. Even so, she is (along with my wife) the imagined reader I write for — which is funny, because I never asked Lois to read my work when I was at STORY. I didn’t feel I had the right, and I suppose I was also a bit cowed. But here she is, after all these years, still looking over my shoulder each time I sit down at the computer. Adjusting her glasses. Tapping her impeccably shod foot. Hoping to read something that will grab her and not let go.


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