Susan Henderson is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. Her debut novel, Up From the Blue, was published by HarperCollins in 2010 and has been selected as a Great Group Reads pick (by the Women’s National Book Association), an outstanding softcover release (by NPR), a Best Bets Pick (by BookReporter), Editor’s Pick (by BookMovement), Editor’s Choice (by BookBrowse), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness), and a favorite reads feature on the Rosie O’Donnell show. Susan blogs at and The Nervous Breakdown and volunteers for the We Are Family Foundation. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and Chair of a university drama department. They live in NY with their two boys.

There’s a lot of talent in this place! Thank you for inviting me here and thank you to all of the writers who shared their work.

Judging is a subjective process, so let me talk a little bit about the kind of writing that excites me. I’m someone who likes to be engaged by the first two sentences. Openings like these got my attention: “As kids,/we blew up a fish./ We shoved a bottle rocket into its respiring mouth and lit it.” (Blowing Up While Fading Out by Anthony Van Hart); “Please, come in. Take a chair, son.” (Consider the Son by Eli Hopkins); “Milton’s/up there/on his roof/again,/hammering tin/flashing into swans” (How to Not Suck @ Poetry Section 1 by Dennis Mahagin); “Say the world is a smudged charcoal drawing. Slit from its frame, smuggled out of the Vatican”  (Point of Grace by Mark Reep). In each of these examples, I liked the voice and the energy and the visual of these openings. I was immediately pulled inside the story and curious about where it would go.

There are a number of ways a story will keep me engaged. Is there a beginning, middle, and end? Does the story surprise me? Am I captured by the voice or the language? Has the story taken me somewhere emotionally or intellectually? Has it changed my mind, made me question my beliefs, made me see something differently than I had seen it before? Some standouts: “She likes the safety of bars.… I try to touch her through the bars. I can no longer count the back bones, the ribs. She is a slice of moonlight” (Return by Gary Moshimer); “Women here discuss dog food ingredients and how many calories it takes to eat a carrot versus how many calories are in the carrot itself” (Maybe by Meg Pokrass); “I work at night so that is not me you hear her fucking” (Alice by Kate Axelrod); “a war is yet to be fought, a life to be lived” (Father by JP Reese);  “We take turns with the flashlight, hand it over without turning it off, and the beam bounces off the ceiling, walls, before catching on skin, bright beneath the light “ (The Game by Tawnysha Greene); “Lettie doesn’t know why the TV doesn’t come in anymore or why the postman doesn’t always pick up the out going mail or why the garbage men never put the lid back on or why the store clerk doesn’t know her name….” (An Awful Long Time by Michael Dickes); “At night he would sit in his recliner and imagine the blank television screen a few feet away as a portal window on a submarine, and himself as its trustworthy pilot (The Mariner by Jeffrey S. Callico); and “When he gets up, his back aching as if he’d laid in a coffin for years, his legs do a quick, unconscious dance step” (The Serious Writer and His Mother by Marcus Speh).

In the end, these were the stories that held me with their language, their details, and where they carried my mind and heart. Listed alphabetically:

  1. Kissing the Lampshade by James Claffey. This story took me on such a vivid journey and reminded me a bit of William Maxwell in terms of the care taken with word choice and rhythm and a subtle poignancy in the ways the characters both connect and remain at a distance from each other. I would strongly recommend cutting the opening sentence and maybe working the idea of the kidney problem into the title or maybe via the nurse after we hear her walk down that hallway. But other than that, it’s quite powerful writing.
  2. Sweet Pea, Sweet William by Henry E. Powderly II. This is one of the first pieces I read and I kept coming back to it. Now I confess I may have misunderstood it, but I took Sweet William to be both the flower and a child. If it’s not also about a child, don’t tell me because I love the power of it. And with my read of it, there’s a conflict I like between the sweet and the dark. The poem captures the beauty of what’s before you in the present and yet there’s that menacing knot of grief, the loss that can no longer be separated from an otherwise peaceful scene. I also love the simple and lingering quality of the words, never writerly and yet each one has been chosen so carefully. Beautiful work.
  3. Homesteading by Linda Simoni-Wastila. This was one of those stories where I forgot where I was because I had fully entered the fictional world. I was exploring this beat-up house, felt the weight of the baby, and experienced a mixture of fear and curiosity about going further into the mystery of the attic. I got the feeling that there might be a novel here, and that this writer could really walk that line between literary and commercial fiction—an editor’s dream come true.

Thank you again for sharing your work and all best in seeing your stories find homes.


Editor’s Eye is a blog series that aims to highlight noteworthy work that might have slipped through the cracks of Fictionaut’s automated list of recommendations. Every two weeks, a distinguished visiting editor scours the site for lost treasures and picks outstanding stories.

  1. Jeff

    Susan, thanks for mentioning my story, The Mariner. This is a great article.


  2. michael dickes

    I very much appreciated Susan’s look at what keeps her engaged in a story. I will often grab a book and read the first line just to see if it changes my pulse a little bit. If I am affected in some nature, I will read on. As Susan mentioned, “Am I captured by the voice or the language? Has the story taken me somewhere emotionally or intellectually?” I have been listening to lectures by philosopher Alan Watts lately. Here is a fine example of a captivating voice presenting his topic with captivating language. If the topic was bent staples, his style of delivery would hold me.

  3. james claffey

    Thanks so much to Susan for choosing my story, and for highlighting some other great work I haven’t seen before!

  4. Jeff

    Susan, thanks for mentioning my piece The Mariner. This article is a very enjoyable read.

  5. Deborah Bundy

    This article gave a lot of useful information through examples. I appreciate that. Thank you, Susan.

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