Author Archives: courtneysender

Against “Unlikeable”: On the occasion of What Happened

I’ve got a new post up at the AGNI blog, “Against ‘Unlikeable,’: On the occasion of What Happened.” It’s about unlikeable female characters, Hillary Clinton, my novel rejection, Hamilton, Game of Thrones, the Bechdel Test, Claire Messud, Lean In, and more.  

Look out soon for new stories in Joyland, Shenandoah, and Louisiana Letters (that last for the piece that won the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival fiction contest).  Since my last update, I’ve also had new stories in AGNI and The Blueshift Journal, about an angel on stilts and a robot ex-boyfriend, respectively.

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Game of Thrones, Interview, Stories


1. Finally, my roommates’ years-long insistence that I watch Game of Thrones pays off. xoJane runs my version of participating in the cultural conversation: “Ygritte Is the Most Criminaly Underrated Character on Game of Thrones. I swear I will convince you.

2. Interview up at the wonderful Writers & Words website, a monthly reading series at Charmingtons. (In the Remington neighborhood of Baltimore.  First Tuesdays.)  I discuss Chekhov’s gun, among other writer-life things.

3. Three stories!

a) “Marguerite” in The Mississippi Review, about a fictional second uprising in Baltimore, one year after the first. (The real anniversary was about a month ago. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Nonviolence as Compliance” remains my favorite must-read on the subject.) 

b) “Osmium Schwartz on Her Back” in The Georgia Reviewabout a girl with a hundred-pound heart.

c) “Sampson Grows His Hair” in Slice Magazine.  Unfortunately no story link, as I gave my only copy to my sister.  Pick up a copy if you see one.  First lines: “My parents weren’t religious people, merely uncreative.  When it came time to name their children, they flipped to a page and pointed.”

4. Look out this October for The Best Small Fictions 2016an anthology of flash stories that includes my “The Solidarity of Fat Girls,” originally published in American Short Fiction. (Also includes Etgar Keret, for the higher-brow!)

Image courtesy of HBO
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Mississippi Review contest, Cosmonauts Avenue

My story “Marguerite” will appear this summer as the first-place winner of the Mississippi Review fiction contest.  This one is very dear to my heart; it’s about a fictional second uprising in Baltimore that takes place one year after the first.  (The real-life anniversary will be next month.  Good to note, too, that April of 1968 also saw riots in Baltimore after the MLK assassination.  These cycles are likely to continue as long as systemic inequity continues.)

And currently up at Cosmonauts Avenue is “Courage,” a supershort that begins: “Once I dated a boy named courage. I should have kissed him a hundred thousand more times.”

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Kenyon Review story out now

My story, “Black Harness,” is out in this month’s Kenyon Review and online here.  This one’s about a Jewish girl, a German boy, a concentration camp, and some blood.  Not light reading, per se, but fairly short!

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Two final stories for 2015

Two final updates for 2015:

-My Amazon Day One story, “Rikki Freeman, Grade Six,” is now available on its own for Kindle or any other e-reader.  Beautiful cover art by Michael Hirshon intact. 

-A short one for quick reading!  DIAGRAM has my 4-paragraph story, “Prophetess,” up now.  And a lovely review at the Emerging Writers Network here.

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Amazon Day One on Kindle, Boulevard, Printers Row

Lots of story updates!

1. Check out my story and an interview with me in this week’s Amazon Day One on Kindle.  Available one week only.  “Rikki Freeman, Grade Six” is about growing up alongside racism in a 6th grade classroom.  The issue also has beautiful cover art by Michael Hirshon and a poem by Darrel Alejandro Holnes.  Note: you can download a free Kindle app to your smartphone to read there! 

2. My Boulevard story, “The Disappearance of J. Frank Donaldson,” is now available online.  The magazine, and my story, also got a great review on Best New Fiction.

3. If you’re in the Chicago area, check out this week’s issue of Printers Row — the Chicago Tribune’s literary supplement — for my story, “Trivia Night.”

And look out for upcoming work of mine in The Kenyon Review, Slice, Golly, and Alaska Quarterly Review in the next few months!

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Updates: Glimmer Train, HuffPo, Kenyon Review

A few updates and new pieces to read — 

1. The spring/summer Glimmer Train has dropped, including my story, “Even Angels Are Astonished.”  I’ve posted a short excerpt here.

2. I’ve got a new essay in this week’s Glimmer Train bulletin, on Narrative Arc in the Novel.

3. The Huffington Post has named “The Solidarity of Fat Girls” one of its 12 super short stories you can read in a flash.

4. The Kenyon Review has announced its short fiction contest winners, chosen (and commented on!) by one of my all-time favorite authors, Ann Patchett.  My story, “Black Harness,” is forthcoming this winter.

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Currently reading: City of Thieves

City of Thieves, David Benioff (2008)


What an absolutely captivating book!  Set in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg) during the Nazi siege, the book was unexpectedly one of the best buddy (tragi)comedies I’ve read, with weight and import lent by the historical setting.  The dialogue between Kolya and Lev is so sharp, punchy, fast; their instant rapport only deepens as the book goes on, and is the main reason to turn pages even in a plot-heavy book.  That’s to say that, even though the plot is a powerful driving force, this is really a book about characters and relationships.  I could have read endless dialogue between Kolya and Lev.  It’s no surprise to me that Benioff writes for HBO; his starving WWII-era Russians have the chemistry, charm, and fast-felt and easily-conveyed affection of a fouler-mouthed and quadruply-literary Friends.

A master class in:

This book is a master class in so many elements of good writing.

Time compression and clean plotting.  The whole book takes place over the course of one week, and is propelled by a single goal: find a dozen eggs by week’s end, or die.  Yet the plot doesn’t seem contrived or stale by book’s end; Benioff does incredible work of shunting the directive organically aside as events run their course, without ever completely forgetting it.

But to me, this is ultimately a relationship novel.  In how many different ways does Benioff make us love his characters?

1. Establishing a handful of specific, idiosyncratic character traits, and repeating them from opening to conclusion.  How many days since Kolya has shit; Kolya’s calling Lev “my little Israelite” during the Nazi seige; Kolya training Lev to woo women; Kolya’s love for The Courtyard Hound: all of these recur constantly, but they change and surprise and, depending on the scenario, inflect.  (The Courtyard Hound revelation is particularly well-timed and moving.)  My reaction to this repetition–a feeling of real warmth toward familiar characters–shows what I think is a truth about a reader’s relationship to fiction: we want to feel we know the people we’re reading about.  Repeating traits so often that we’re able to think, Typical Kolya, Classic Lev, is one way to guide us to this level of interpersonal intimacy.

2. Instantly make a character likable by showing him/her being brave or kind in unexpected or quirky ways.  Here’s the introductory description for a very minor character: “Zavodilov, rumored to be a gangster, missing two fingers on his left hand and always whistling at the girls, even if they were homely, maybe whistling louder at the homely girls to keep their spirits up.”  And here’s Lev’s commentary when he is just beginning to care about Kolya: “I was half asleep but I smiled.  In spite of all his irritating qualities, I couldn’t help liking a man who despised a fictional character with such passion.”

3. Instant romantic chemistry– Show characters undercutting each other in a joking tone that suggests how well they know and like each other.  Here’s the introduction for Sonya: 

“This is my friend Lev. He won’t tell me his patronymic or his family name, but maybe he’ll tell you. I’ve got a feeling you’re his type. Lev, Sonya Ivanovna. One of my early conquests and still a dear friend.”

“Ha! Bit of a short-lived conquest, wasn’t it? Napoleon in Moscow?”

Kolya grinned at me. He still had an arm around Sonya, holding her close to him. 


Bonus: Benioff is also great as a line-to-line writer of breakneck speed: “I took another step up and Kolya shot out of the apartment, his boots skidding on the floor as he nearly ran past the staircase. He made the turn, hurling himself down the flight, grabbing my collar, and tugging me along with him.”  

Final thoughts:

This novel also got me thinking about the psychology of the happy ending.  Brad Leithauser has a great essay at The New Yorker about viewing fiction as if through a keyhole, in which you conceive of characters as having lives you don’t see beyond the page, or as a box, in which everything that exists is set before you.  Generally, I fall into the latter camp.  But in books I really love, with characters I feel I’ve come to know, I list toward keyhole reading.  And when you’re reading as if a world exists for these characters beyond the book, you want a happy ending for them.  Loss of their happiness affects you (me) on a real level, as if a piece of my own world is shuttered or shadowed.  Upon closing this book, I found myself questioning what kind of writer I want to be — whether I most value leaving keyhole readers with a sense of contented companionship, or box readers with a rich, earned, and perhaps unhappy tableau.

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Lawrence Foundation prize announced

Michigan Quarterly Review has announced its Lawrence Foundation prize for best short story published in the journal this year.  They chose “We Can Practice Starts,” my take on Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” whose title I’ve always found misleading.  So I thought I would try my hand at a serial-killer story that fit my more romantic expectations for her title!

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Two new short-shorts

1: The Short Eternity – On having lunch with an old boyfriend and cheating time.  At The Normal School.

2: What To Do with the Pain in Your Chest – A how-to.  Exactly what it sounds like.  At Hobart.

Still to come: podcast version of The Solidarity of Fat Girls at American Short Fiction.


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