Bad Things, Cattle Dogs, and the Nelligan Prize: An Interview with Luke Dani Blue
Feb 21, 2016
by Meghan Pipe, Colorado Review Editorial Assistant
Here at Colorado Review, we’re in that mid-winter liminal space between Nelligan Prizes, celebrating our 2015 winner while eagerly accepting submissions for 2016. 2015’s winner is Luke Dani Blue, whose “Bad Things That Happen to Girls” was selected by final judge Lauren Groff. Blue will visit Colorado State University to give a public reading alongside the Center for Literary Publishing’s 2015 Colorado Prize for Poetry winner, Stephanie Lenox, later this month.
In anticipation of Blue’s reading and the looming 2016 submission deadline, editorial assistant Meghan Pipe chatted with Blue about her current projects, favorite lit mags, and encouragement for writers thinking about submitting their stories to the Nelligan Prize.
You’re at work on a story collection, in which “Bad Things That Happen to Girls” will appear. Can you tell us about it?
For sure! It’s called American Sex Change. I’m a week or two from finishing (“finishing”) the manuscript after five years of work. Very exciting.
The nine stories follow weirdo characters in weirdo situations. Two inept con artists adopt a baby, an embittered boozehound befriends a cockroach, a young trans guy with a forged ticket embarks on a maybe-endless Greyhound ride, etc. “Bad Things That Happen to Girls” is one of the only strictly realist stories in the collection; it had to be realist to accommodate Birdie’s magical thinking.
Each of the characters [in the collection] is dead certain about the terms of their lives, and reality inevitably rebels against that unshakeable conviction. There’s a lot of denial but, I hope, also a lot of fiction-as-sustaining-force. Everyone in American Sex Change suffers from rewarding delusions. I guess the question I’m asking as a writer is What happens to dreamers? Which I think is a quintessentially American question.
Had you read 2015 judge Lauren Groff’s work before you submitted “Bad Things That Happen to Girls” to the Nelligan Prize?
No! Here’s what happened. I did Google her name before I entered. I must have liked what I read, but then I swiftly forgot about her and about the Nelligan Prize entirely (a rejection-survival strategy I recommend). I was finishing my MFA and really too busy to think of anything besides my thesis. At a book sale, I randomly picked up Groff’s book Arcadia and read it practically in one sitting. A few weeks later, you guys called and told me Lauren Groff had selected my story. It was a very weird moment. I was trying to make sense of how the author of this book I’d just read and loved had found me.
Gish Jen is our judge for the 2016 Nelligan Prize. Which of Jen’s stories or novels would you particularly recommend to readers?
I’ve read and taught Jen’s hilarious story “Who’s Irish?”, a first-person story told by this cantankerous grandmother. One my all-time favorite narrators.
When not writing, you’re a professional astrologer. Are there aspects of astrology that inform your fiction? If so, how?
Absolutely, though both modes of thinking are so much a part of how I see the world that it’s hard to disentangle them. I practice what’s called psychological astrology, which means using millennia-old astrological techniques and a person’s birth time to understand personality/dreams/desires/personal limitations/etc. I’ve been writing much longer than I’ve been practicing astrology, and trying to understand people longer than that. Both fiction and astrology happened because of my own desperation to understand other people. If astrology informs my fiction, it’s by reminding me of the grand variety of human idiosyncrasies and the validity of each person’s unique worldview. I’m a self-righteous jerk if left to my own devices, so astrology probably helps my fiction be more generous. It reminds me that my characters (i.e., other people) are not me. And that that’s a good thing.
What are some of your favorite literary magazines? What are they doing that’s interesting or surprising or great?
I’m partial to lit mags that feel more story-focused (as opposed to style or “experimentation”), have a sense of humor, and are willing to stray into unfamiliar territory. Electric Literature, One Story, Tin House are my top three. I also love Midnight Breakfast and Guernica, and have recently read a few essays on Hobart that made me laugh and think hard. Colorado Review absolutely makes my list. All of these mags have a reader in mind who is a READER first, rather than a scholar of writing technique. They print lots of queer writers and writers of color and international writers and female writers. They assume “outsiders” are insiders.
Any words of encouragement you’d offer to writers thinking about submitting to the Nelligan Prize?
Despite my own apparently dumb-luck contest-entering strategy, I do think researching a contest is key. This experience has convinced me that if I love a judge’s writing, it’s a lot more likely that they will love mine. Also, revising helps. (“Bad Things” went through 10 or so deep rewrites.) That said, do it! I had 6 months straight of “Bad Things” rejections before I sent the story to you guys. I entered with a sense of doom and hopelessness and then this crazy winning thing happened. The benefits of winning for a newbie writer like me are huge.
You did not ask me about my cattle dog. She does backflips.
And second, tell us something we don’t know. And this can be a fact about you or it can be just an interesting piece of trivia about the world.
One of the leading dinosaur-extinction theories is that 99.9% of dinosaurs were wiped out in a single minute! (Apologies to Radiolab listeners who already knew.)
Luke Dani Blue will read at the Hatton Gallery at Colorado State University on Thursday, February 25th at 7 pm. The event is free and open to the public.
Submissions for the 2016 Nelligan Prize for Fiction, judged by Gish Jen, are open now through March 15th. More information is available at coloradoreview.colostate.edu/nelligan-prize.