Since 2009, the Boston Book Festival has brought writers as diverse as Salman Rushdie, Alison Bechdel and A. M. Homes to a city so literary it was once nicknamed the “Athens of America.” This year’s festival continues the One City One Story program that distributes thousands of free copies of one lucky short story around the greater Boston area in the weeks leading up to the festival. This year’s story, “Sublimation,” comes from Jennifer Haigh, a New York Times bestseller and PEN/Hemingway award winner for her first novel, Mrs. Kimble. She spoke with us about what it’s like to be chosen for One City One Story, the value of the city's book festival and why writing a novel can be like a bad marriage.
One City One Story must really widen your audience of potential readers – has this been exciting for you?
Oh, it’s thrilling! You know, part of the challenge of writing short stories is that a lot of the magazines that used to publish them no longer do, so writers who like writing these things are always looking for ways to connect with readers, and it’s not obvious how you do that. So a program like this, where they print 30,000 copies and they have the story translated into several languages, is really just kind of a dream come true. … In the springtime, someone from the Boston Book Festival committee contacted me and asked me if I had a story I’d like to submit. I think they looked at several possibilities and I was very pleased they chose mine.
As a Boston-based writer, do you think that initiatives like this are helpful to the city?
I think that the Boston Book Festival has been the most important development I’ve seen in the last few years. It’s astonishing what they have accomplished in a very short time. ... As a writer, I go to book festivals all the time, and a lot of them have been around a lot longer than this one and have much less interesting programs and much less variety of programming. I think it’s just been a tremendous accomplishment. It makes sense to me for Boston to have a festival of this caliber because it is a great city for writers and a great city for readers.
Do you find that there’s a different process when writing short stories versus novels?
Yeah, I do. It’s sort of like the difference between dating and a long bad marriage! I mostly write novels, and it really is a question of living with the mistakes you made yesterday and six months ago and two years ago…With a short story, there’s this wonderful feeling of discovery. You get to develop new characters, you try them out, and if it doesn’t work out you move on. With a novel, you spend a lot of time there, and sometimes that doesn’t work out, either, but it takes a long time to figure it out.