| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews “The most innocent thing you can do is want to create”: Robert J. Dau Prize Winner Isaac Hughes Green
Learn about Isaac Hughes Green’s short story “The First Time I Said It,” which was selected for ‘Best Debut Short Stories 2021.’
Best Debut Short Stories 2021: The PEN America Dau Prize is the fifth edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the recent weeks, we’ve featured Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, and Beth Piatote.
Isaac Hughes Green attended the North Carolina State University MFA program and NYU Tisch, has been published in The Georgia Review , and won the 2021 Jacobs/Jones African-American Literary Prize, in addition to being longlisted for The Masters Review ’s 2019 Fall Fiction contest and receiving honorable mention for the 2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction. Green screened a film in the Cannes Short Film Corner and has won screenwriting and cinematography awards. He centers diversity in his writing.
“The First Time I Said It” was originally published in The Georgia Review. Find a brief excerpt below:
I had been out on the court for a hot minute. I’d woken up around noon, had a bacon, egg, and cheese from the bodega downstairs from my apartment, headed to Tompkins, and started working in. The summer sun blazed down on New York City—its heat thick like the bacon grease Dad used to save in cans next to the stove, or thick like Anna who sat behind me in history class and wrote our initials with a heart around them on the corner of my notebook, or thick like my hair when I’d tried to freeform it that summer after Afropunk. I’d won a few games that morning but lost more, so instead of being on the court sweating, I was on the sidelines stealing glances at the lifeguard on the deck of the tiny pool between the courts and the Zen garden. Eventually I got hungry again. So I walked to the pizza shop on the corner of Tenth and Avenue A. I got my usual chicken, bacon, and ranch slice with a healthy addition of red pepper flakes and Parmesan. Then I took it back to the courts and sat down and started to eat. I was halfway through the slice when I heard someone calling out to me.
Where did you find the idea for this story?
The idea for this story came from a couple of places. One was a linguistics class that I took with Dr. Walt Wolfram during my time in the MFA program at North Carolina State University. We examined the way words change over time including how “napron” became “apron” after being commonly spoken beside the word “an.” I thought about which word had changed meaning to me the most in my life and decided it was the n-word. The power of the word and the differing implications it can have made me think that it could be examined in full.
What was your writing process like for this story?
I used a mix of memories and fictionalized storytelling to create this piece. My advisor in the MFA program Wilton Barnhardt encouraged me to submit a story to the NCSU Fiction Contest and I wrote the story during a break in my first semester. I listened to Flying Lotus, ate pistachios, and drank a few mixed drinks while I wrote at a table that had been in my family since before I was born. The version published in The Georgia Review and the anthology is slightly different from the one that received the honorable mention in the NCSU Fiction Contest because of a few key edits suggested by C. J. Bartunek, including nixing a mention to a John Mayer song in the opening, and the removal of the phrases T he first time I said it , T he next time I said it , etc. from the beginning of each segment of the piece.
The story has a cinematic quality to it, in that only a beat passes in real time from the opening scene to the end, and yet over the course of “The First Time I Said It,” we time travel back to crucial moments throughout the narrator’s life. How did you decide on this structure, and in what ways does your background in screenwriting and cinematography play into your fiction?
I took a writing class with James McBride while I was an undergraduate at NYU. It was revelatory and made me want to tell stories professionally. One of the things he taught us was to give a sort of hook in the beginning of a story before delving into backstory. I wasn’t sure that the story would take on the specific form that it does when I began writing. I thought it might have some moments of the present interspersed between, which would make it more of a conventional narrative. But I liked that each segment was succinct and contrasted with the next. It allowed them to be juxtaposed against one another without editorialization. I also believe that each moment we experience as humans doesn’t just involve what we’re going through in the moment, but what we’ve been through in the past. This philosophy factored heavily in the decision to let most of the story play out in a flashback. A lot of the initial lessons I learned about writing technique were taught to me in screenwriting classes. I’ve always found films like Run Lola Run, which break the rules of time, to be interesting and would cite them as an inspiration for this work.
What is significant about the narrator wanting and studying to be an artist in the scheme of the story?
I think we’re all born innocent and the most innocent thing you can do is want to create. We’re told we need to buy or to have. But, for a young artist, the act of creating is an act of giving without knowing what you’re going to get back. You might have notions of what you’d eventually like to be rewarded with, as the narrator does at points in the story, but you don’t know for sure what will happen as you would with most jobs. That innocence is something that is attacked in instances along the narrator’s journey. I felt that the ending would have more weight if the character had this incessant drive to create and lost it because of those attacks. It’s as if he’s been carrying around the weight of the n-word and, and only by letting it go through speaking it aloud himself can he relieve himself of the burden. But there’s a change that the protagonist goes through there too, because with the utterance comes guilt and an involvement in a culture that the narrator has steered clear of. There’s also the formation of community and reclamation of pride. Without having an initial desire to give through art and be recognized for it, there would be no room for this transformation.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
So far, it has introduced me to a wonderful group of writers from diverse backgrounds who I am continually inspired by. It has also allowed me to take myself more seriously as a writer. I think it was instrumental in helping me secure the teaching position I currently hold at NCCU. I am particularly grateful for that because I feel like I’m doing work that benefits my community. I’ve also had a few interactions with literary agents that might not have happened had I not won this award. While I haven’t signed with anyone yet, the feedback I’ve received has helped me develop my novel manuscripts. All in all, I think winning the award has grown my career and made me a better writer.
What’s the best or worst writing advice you’ve ever received and why?
The best writing advice I’ve received came from a screenwriting teacher I had at NYU named Lynne Boyarsky. She used to always tell me that what audiences want is “a good story well told.” I think this advice is helpful because it points out that you can have all of the elements of a good story, but without paying attention to details like word choice and scene setting, you won’t have anything worth reading. The same is true if you have flowery or purple language that is beautiful but otherwise meaningless. You have to have substance and technique to create writing at the highest level, which this motto underscores.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
I discover new writing on social media, through the literary magazines I’m subscribed to, and through people I meet who recommend books to me.