John Freeman, editor, anthologist, and creator of the literary annual Freeman’s, joins Zibby to discuss how he put together The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story, as well as his esteemed career in the publishing industry. The two talk about what makes a strong short story, why those who work in publishing are some of the most hopeful people, and how collaboration is one of the greatest joys of literature.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

John Freeman: It’s so great to be here.

Zibby: We have so much to discuss, your literary career. I’m so excited to talk books and everything with you. The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story is your latest hardcover publication here. Then you have Change coming out soon from Freeman’s. How did you decide on which short stories to include in this collection? I know you’re master anthologist. As a budding anthologist myself, I’m looking for lots of tips from you. How did you pick?

John: It was actually quite fun. In the beginning, I had a list of stories I thought would go in. Then I decided it would be far better and more interesting to just go and read what was out there. I spent a year, a year and a half reading a couple thousand stories from all the best Americans from 1970 upwards to the O. Henry collections, to everything that had been shortlisted for a prize, to stories people recommended, to stories by noted short story writers. It was just a short story feast for almost two years. That was quite interesting because people I had thought I was in love with sometimes paled in comparison to new discoveries.

Zibby: Interesting. It’s funny. I feel like in today’s market, the short story collections are often not given as much attention. They say they don’t sell as well. They’re not as commercial or blah, blah, blah, not that it matters. Then when we think about literature over time, the short stories, that’s what people read in school, at least. Those are what have the lasting legacy. Maybe we’re getting something wrong right now.

John: We are taught to read by reading short stories. I think for some, that has a lingering medicinal aftertaste, and they sort of avoid of it. When you catch a good story early, whether it’s Flannery O’Connor or Jack London or James Baldwin, you never forget it. My hope was to make a book full of stories that made the reader, even if they weren’t familiar with the writer or the story, that would recapture that feeling, that magic, that deeply memorable experience that a short story can give you. It was a high bar, but when a story meets it, it’s just electric.

Zibby: Yes. I love that you have Karen Russell and Lauren Groff and all these contemporary authors mixed in with Grace Paley and Susan Sontag. They must have been so excited to be included, right? To be in your canon of short stories, as it were, that’s pretty awesome.

John: I don’t know. I’m blown away consistently by both of those writers’ stories you just mentioned, Karen Russell and Lauren Groff. They came out early, very early. If you read Lauren Groff’s first collection, she has this long love story. It’s based on Troilus and Cressida, but it’s in set in early twentieth century. I almost included that story because it was just such a beautiful love story. I thought, god, I can’t include a story from the very first year she was publishing. Florida is full of fantastic stories. There was three in that book I could’ve included. I find that there are certain writers, Russell is another one, where her imagination, it’s its own planet, its own universe. She’s so good at the short story. I could’ve chosen a few by her. The same was true of Raymond Carver. He was taught a lot. I think he created a lot of imitators. You go back to Raymond Carver’s stories, and wow, they just feel completely skinless. They’re these alive things. They don’t feel old at all. The same is true of Toni Cade Bambara. The first story that kicks off the book, “The Lesson,” is something I think is taught very frequently in schools. She was one of those writers where the appreciation of her wasn’t transcending the early educational uses of her work. I hope this book will be taught in schools, but I hope it will just be enjoyed by people who want a good story. I really wanted to kick off with her because I think she’s one of the maestros of the twentieth century short story, just absolutely pitch-perfect control over voice and irony. In this story, these children on a school trip into Manhattan to go to what I think is FAO Schwartz, the schoolteacher thinks she’s teaching them about the value of dutiful accumulation of wealth. Instead, she’s teaching them about shame and poverty. The kids already know that lesson. The story has so many circles within it, so many layers. She does all this in a couple thousand words. She does it again and again in her career as a short story writer. Part of this book is celebrating people who really dedicated their career to writing stories. Groff and Paley and Bambara are among them.

Zibby: Did you have Jhumpa Lahiri? Oh, yeah, you did have Jhumpa Lahiri. I was going to say she’s the quintessential short story writer in my mind where you jump right into a story. You never forget the characters. It just sears into your brain. I’m glad you included her.

John: She’s a beautiful writer. You’re right. The stories by her, the characters feel like their world and their being exists beyond the story. To me, that’s what seems like a hallmark of a great character in a story, is that feeling that you might finish the story, and they have a whole other existence beyond the story. Whereas with a novel you finish, unless there’s a strong sense of a sequel, you think, okay, that’s their world. I’ve seen it, especially a bigger novel when it’s roomy and has languor and those enchanting pleasures of interior life. With a short story, you feel like you only get a slice of someone’s very deep life.

Zibby: Yeah, left wanting more, kind of like a movie trailer. Where’s the rest of it?

John: Will you be publishing short stories at your new imprint?

Zibby: I don’t know. Leigh Newman, who I cofounded Zibby Books with, has her own collection of short stories coming out in April.

John: She’s a fabulous short story writer.

Zibby: Yeah, she’s amazing. We have talked about that. We haven’t ruled anything out. We have a memoir in essays coming out. I feel like that’s kind of the flip side, short stories to a collection of essays. We’re not ruling anything out at this point, but we haven’t acquired one yet. She always talks about her passion for short stories, so I wouldn’t be surprised.

John: It is, sadly, the exception to the exception that sells in the short story form. Several people in this book, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz, to some degree Carver over time, Lauren Groff, there are people that really sell in serious numbers as short story writers, but it’s rare. In America, sometimes it feels a little bit like selling air because short stories are everywhere. They’re in magazines. Sometimes they’re in, even, newspapers. You’re taught them. They’re on podcasts. You can download them depending on how long your subway trip is. It’s a unit of pleasure that doesn’t necessarily need a book, or if not a book, then a single book by a single author. For that reason, I sometimes wonder if people’s attitude towards it is more akin to how people treat albums and music right now. They just sort of pick one song from iTunes and download it versus get the whole album.

Zibby: True. Although, I think the great thing about anthologies and short stories collections and essay collections is that no matter how tired you are, you can just read one and feel like you’ve accomplished something. I did the beginning, middle, and end of this thing. That’s what I did today. Now I have something good that I can cross off the list.

John: Don’t you love flash fiction for that? There’s a couple stories in here that are very, very short. George Saunders’ and Alice Walker’s stories are two, three hundred words.

Zibby: Thank you for that. I felt accomplished very early in the night with those. That’s why I’ve actually found with all this reading, I’m also newly in love with poetry, which, again, was sort of in the realm of school for me for a while. Now because I’m like, oh, poetry, I can read that faster, I’m back into enjoying that. It has the same thing. It’s this immediacy. It’s a different art form. I’m sounding ridiculous. I have this newfound appreciation for coming back around from my time as fiction, memoir, thriller, all that stuff. I shouldn’t say thriller. I don’t really like thrillers. Well, I shouldn’t say that either.

John: You’re going to hear some dogs in the background.

Zibby: My dog may jump up and join the fray. No worries. I feel like probably one out of ten podcasts, there is a dog barking. That’s fine. John, how did you get to here? How did you become executive editor of Knopf? All the work that you’ve done, did you know this — what did you want to do when you started out? Did you always want to be a writer? What happened from college to here, the short version?

John: If you had told me when I was twenty-one and graduating from university that in twenty-five years I would be an editor at Knopf, I would’ve fallen over in happiness. I knew I wanted to be involved in books, but I didn’t know how. I went to a very small Quaker college, Swarthmore, that didn’t have a pipeline. We had Jonathan Franzen who was, when I was graduating, still wandering the heath of discovering what kind of novels he was — this was long before Corrections. There weren’t a lot of people in publishing and magazines, but I got a job because Random House was recruiting from universities directly then. I got hired into a program at Bantam Doubleday Dell in 1996 and moved to New York and got a job as an assistant to the late Marjorie Braman who was a mass market editor. I was so green. The phone rang. She was standing over me. I just picked it up and said, “It’s for you.” The guy next to me, who’s still in publishing, he’s an agent now, he took me inside. “We’re going to have to teach you a few things.” I didn’t know what it meant to be an assistant. I just knew that I loved books and I loved reading and probably wanted to write, but I didn’t know which way to go about it. I spent two years as an assistant in a variety of jobs. I quit one, was fired from one. The third, I just kind of phased out. Partly, it just was such a different time. It was the heyday of the author tour, gigantic advances. My third job was at Hyperion. They were doing books by standup comedians. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and so I left and had a couple years where I worked at an investment bank.

Zibby: No way.

John: Yeah. I made newsletters for HMOs that they would send out, like, “How to use your primary care physician.” In the middle of this period, I sent some college-era newspaper clips to Publishers Weekly. They let me review a book. I used that clip to send to The Boston Phoenix, which is a now-defunct alternative weekly. I started reviewing books very slowly. I got lucky in that my first assignment was for Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. My second assignment was The Hours by Michael Cunningham. My third assignment was For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander. I thought, oh, my god, reviewing’s great. You just get to read really fantastic books and try to make sense of them. Eventually, I started to get books I was less fond of. It was a great time, 1999, I found. Putting together this anthology, I could’ve chosen six or seven stories from ’99. Jhumpa Lahiri was in full flow then, Nathan Englander, Junot Díaz. Lorrie Moore was writing great stories in that period. There was a whole new kind of short story that was being written. There was a pleasure in it. The humor was less tart and clubby. There were also a number of new voices that were coming to the fore that were people from communities that did not see themselves at the center of America. Nathan Englander grew up in an orthodox Jewish community in Long Island. A lot of his stories feel like Babel or Singer stories, at least the early ones.

Anyway, I reviewed books for a while. Eventually, lost the day job and just reviewed full time for almost ten years. Then I got a job in New York. I edited a guide to children’s books and abridged children’s versions of Tarzan. I had about thirty jobs, it felt like, until I finally ended up with a full-time job, which was not until I got hired to work at Granta. I’d been reviewing books for about twelve years, and interviewing people. I went to the party for the 2003 Best of Young American Novelist list. I think that was about the year. No, sorry, it was 2007. I met the owners. They were looking for an editor. I applied. Didn’t get the job, but then a year later, they hired me to come back and edit. That started a five-year relationship with the magazine. Eventually, became editor. Then my relationship to reading became very different because it was publishing for someone. As a reviewer, you’re sort of in cahoots with the reader. You’re not providing the text. You’re saying, take a pass on this one. This is really, really great. You should read it. You may not read this, but you should really know about it because it’s exceptional. That sounds very consumer-oriented. I reviewed mostly for newspapers. I felt like as much as I wanted to write art in a review, when you have seven hundred words and you’re talking to someone who you don’t have a lot of shared assumptions about, one of them, I felt like, had to be, should you read this? Should you buy it? Should you spend twenty-five dollars on it? I love that. As a publisher, you’ve got subscribers. You’re trying to provide them with a consistent level of enjoyment, but with different things.

That’s what I loved about working at Granta. The people that subscribed to it and read it, they wanted to be excited and challenged. One of the reasons why it needed a new editor at the time I was coming in was it started to provide some of the same things over and over, which is what happens with success. It becomes easy to do what you’ve done before as a publication. That’s how I ended up with all that work. Between working at Granta and now is almost another eight years. I eventually quit that job because I felt like it was deforming personally. You can’t be the editor of a big literary magazine without people treating you like an editor at a big literary magazine. I wanted to write books and do other things too. I quit the job and came back to New York. First thing I noticed was the gap between the rich and the poor. I commissioned an anthology about inequality in New York, which turned into three about America at large and then one about the planet and the gap between not just North and South, but countries which are late to some of the effects of the climate crisis and those which have been paying early. In the course of making that, I also helped start up Lit Hub and worked there for about five years and put about fifteen hundred stories into there. I was doing a lot of editing. I also started my own journal, Freeman’s, which is going into its eight edition this fall with Change. I love finding new things and hearing about new writers and then experiencing reality through their work in a new way. It feels like a way to make life feel endless when it’s very — I wanted to say end-full. It pretty much has an end.

In the course of putting those together, some of the pieces turned into books. Valeria Luiselli wrote an essay about volunteering to interpret for Spanish-speaking miners who had come undocumented into the US in their court dates to verify that they were eligible for asylum. That turned into a really powerful book called Tell Me How It Ends, which is a book-length essay using this as its spine, the questionnaire that these miners are faced with, which is in English and which they need interpreters like her for. She was showing how the questions create a distorted reality. That reality is then used to talk about and think about migration. It was just such a powerful piece. I know from the second that she turned it in at that length that it was a book. Over the course of editing Freeman’s, I thought, this would be really quite a bit fun to work with authors beyond their pieces. I did a little bit of that at Grove. Jamie Cortez has a short story collection out called Gordo, which I ran two of in the journal. Aminatta Forna has an essay collection that also came out this year that I edited for Grove. At a certain point, I sort of burnt out of the internet, and so I quit my job at Lit Hub, which seems to be a five-year plan for me. As a result, I was going to, as you can tell from the background noise, walk dogs. I had no other plans besides dog walking. Then the very next day, Reagan Arthur emailed me and said, “Hey, I want to talk to you about something.” I don’t know what I thought, but when I called her, I was really surprised. Since then, it’s been just an absolute treat. It’s been really fun editing books by Sandra Cisneros and Dave Eggers, Nadifa Mohamed as well. There’s some debuts writers. I feel like I’ve found a job and a group of people that it’s glorious to work with. I’m sorry that’s a little long, but it’s a random path.

Zibby: No, I found that so fascinating. As you’re going through it, careers often don’t make any sense. The totally linear career, especially in this world, there is no clear path, so everybody has to do all sorts of different things getting to where they are in the literary world, if you will. I found it so fascinating. Actually, it’s so funny because I feel like there are a lot of parallels with this little, tiny ecosystem that I’m building here a little bit. Moms Don’t Have Time to Write is now our personal essay site. Now for Zibby Books, a couple of those authors are writing books for us. It’s the same thing. I just want to hear more. That’s how I started doing anthologies, is from the podcast. I wanted to hear more from authors. It comes from the same place, interest, curiosity, leads to commissioning, and then hearing more that way.

John: It’s great having that opportunity, too, because many people in the field that we’re in are good storytellers in person. Listening to people talk and tell stories, you sometimes hear a bigger story. That’s always been a commissioning angle for me. I don’t sit down hoping to do that. I’m not sitting there with a little clicker saying, aha, here it is, here’s the goal. Occasionally, people just tell stories and you think, you should write that as an essay. It’s very fun to be able to say not just, you should write that as an essay, but, I would like to publish that as an essay if you can write that, if you’d be open for trying. It’s so fun.

Zibby: Yeah, it’s so cool. Now it’s like, you should write a book. I’m like, this is so awesome. Now it’s going to be a book. It’s like magic. For any book lovers, this is magic. It’s one thing to discover a book. That means a lot. It’s another to just hear something and think, wow, if you could get all this on the page, this is going to really help other people. Here, it’s just floating around, now you just have to grab it, like this balloon. Tie it to something.

John: Collaboration is one of the greatest joys of working in publishing. As you know, putting together a book, there’s fifty people involved from the copy editors to the fact-checkers to the jacket designer to the photographer for the author. Obviously, the author, him or her, theirselves is the center of it. It’s not quite the case with every other art. Maybe a painter has an assistant. They have a gallerist. There’s people who help hang the paintings and ship them and etc. It’s not quite as collaborative as, say, movies. I love participating in that. I don’t know that I could write, myself, without this form of collaboration being a big part of my life as an editor or an as anthologist. Because I’ve written nonfiction books and poetry, I hope I will not ask an author to do something I wouldn’t ask myself to do. I think that’s a key part of preserving spaces of care within an industry which is very competitive. It’s quite stressful. Selling a book is very difficult. It’s overjoying when it can happen. Then begins the process of trying to make it and get it out there and get people to know about it. Being part of that can be very rewarding, but especially if you’re working with people who have a similar attitude of hopefulness.

The publishing jokes are often cynical and dark. All the great publishers I’ve known, even if they dress all in black, they’re secretly hopeful. You can’t convince an audience with cynicism. Any good teacher knows this too. Although it’s a trope in films, you can’t go into a classroom and win the students over with your stylized cynicism. It doesn’t mean you have to be pie in the sky hopeful. It doesn’t mean that you have to overlook terrible things or fractured issues of, say, what it means to be an American in a country that is like the country we’re in now, that we’ve been in for centuries. Yet you still have to try to find points of, if not hope, then some kind of light, some kind of — pleasure is a big thing. A book is an instrument of education and light and argument, but it’s also primarily, hopefully, pleasure. It should be pleasurable to read. Even if it’s arguing with you, it should be a pleasure to read it. It should be stimulating. That’s a really fun task to be involved in, is providing pleasure for others in that high-minded way. It doesn’t have to be literary, but it has to reach the person.

Zibby: Yes, I love how you said that. Totally agree, a hundred percent.

John: It’s hard with stories, though, isn’t it? One of the things I thought about when I was putting together that anthology, I wanted there to be different forms of pleasure, scary stories, stories that were really, really dark and —

Zibby: — I was like, Stephen King, I can’t. I can’t. I’m going to be up all night. I got to fast-forward through this one.

John: I had a longer story by him called “The Man in the Black Suit,” which is fantastic. The New Yorker ran it in the late nineties. It won an O. Henry Prize. It’s about this kid who sees the devil down by a river. He, of course, runs home and is like, oh, my god, I saw the devil. His dad comes back out. You would think that the devil won’t appear, but I think he does. It’s so scary. The story that I ended up running called “The Dune” is similarly spooky, but it has a different cast to it. It reminds me more — this will date me. There used to be a series on television called Amazing Stories that I think Steven Spielberg maybe produced. They’re stories about just weird things that happen like someone on a plane, and they see someone on the wing of the plane. Every time they point to the person on the wing of the plane, the person next to them turns to look, and the person isn’t out there. He’s like, there’s a person on the plane. That’s a whole show. “The Dune” is like one of those stories. King, he’s so as a short story writer. He’s got billions of examples of this where something uncanny happens, and then the story starts this little engine of escalation. What happens when no one sees it? What happens when no one else sees it? My other favorite story of his is that story “Quitters, Inc.” This guy is at an airport bar. The guy sitting next to him has just quit smoking. He says, hey, try this, it will really work. He phones a number, goes into midtown. It’s this bland office. They have this questionnaire. He fills out, does the whole thing. The person there says, you have to stick by this or else, and doesn’t really specify what’s going to happen. I forget what happens. Basically, the guy instantly sneaks a cigarette. The next day, someone comes by and cuts off his hand or they do something really terrible and violent. It just escalates from there. It was a little bit too brutal.

Zibby: I was watching The Golden Girls. I cannot take any stress in my TV watching. Golden Girls, Punky Brewster, I’m good.

John: Punky Brewster, we must be exactly the same age. I watched that.

Zibby: I’m forty-five.

John: I’m forty-six.

Zibby: There you go.

John: Soleil Moon Frye. I think I had a Punky Brewster poster.

Zibby: I wanted to be her. I thought she was the be all, end all. I remember looking at Swarthmore, by the way, because I got completely lost. My mother took my two friends from high school and me to look at colleges. I remember we had the AAA TripTiks. Do you remember what those were? Anyway, she got us completely lost in a snowstorm looking for Swarthmore and kept calling and screaming at the admissions office. It was so embarrassing, her complete breakdown, that I was like, okay, I can’t apply here. That’s it. I cannot apply to this school. We’ve ruined our reputation already.

John: It does seem like a sign from the gods that maybe this isn’t meant for you.

Zibby: I ended up applying to Penn, not that I went there either. It doesn’t matter.

John: Where did you end up?

Zibby: I went to Yale.

John: Were you happy there?

Zibby: I was, yeah. I loved it. I really loved it. To be honest, I wanted to go to Brown. I was waitlisted there, so I went to Yale.

John: They have a very storied English department, don’t they? They did in the nineties.

Zibby: They did. I thought I wanted to be an English major because I had started writing for Seventeen magazine. I’m embarrassed talking to you. You’re so high-minded, literary. I’m so mainstream.

John: I was at a bank working on spreadsheets calculating the EBITDA of entertainment stocks.

Zibby: I went to business school. I learned how to do EBITDA analysis, not that I’ve used it once. Actually, I did it once. I completely messed up my whole business model, so I’ve decided I should not go back to doing that. Anyway, I thought I wanted to be an English major, but the prerequisites and all the classes, I’m like, I cannot. I don’t want to take any of these classes. I took a prose writing class, which I loved. I wish I could remember my teacher. Then I ended up majoring in psychology because I wanted to take every single one of those classes. I found them so fascinating. That’s what I ended up doing. I’m sure you were an English major.

John: I was, but I also majored in political science. I had a side thing on public policy, but I failed statistics, so I ended up just English and political science.

Zibby: I actually did okay at statistics, crazy enough.

John: You’ll be a good publisher because actually, we calculate EBITDA. We do on our P&Ls say. It’s like, what is the EBITDA of this book? which has been fascinating.

Zibby: Yes, I have been looking at P&Ls again. I’m like, huh. This is what I’m saying. It’s so crazy how every experience ends up making this work, from my time filing author contracts in my internship at Vanity Fair where I’m like, wait, how do I become the author? I don’t want to be filing the contracts.

John: I found that fascinating. I worked in subrights at Farrar Straus. I would file the contracts. Their contracts were — it was Jack Kerouac for Big Sur.

Zibby: These were big-deal contracts. I was like, oh, my god. Meanwhile, I’m totally late for my next podcast here, so I better go. Thank you for this. This was so fun.

John: It was lovely talking to you.

Zibby: You too. We should do this more often or continue.

John: I’m sorry about the interruptus dog-us. They’re keeping us all safe.

Zibby: No worries.

John: I hope you have the best of luck with your list. It sounds like a really fun project.

Zibby: Thank you. I’m excited. Actually, Jenny Jackson, who I adore, she’s the one who introduced me to Anne Messitte who’s now our consulting publisher.

John: That’s fantastic. I’m very excited to read Jenny’s first novel, which should be coming around pretty soon.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I can’t wait. I’m so excited. I’ll have to have her on the podcast. Perfect.

John: Thank you for having me on. It’s a real pleasure. If I can ever introduce you to anyone else or talk to you about EBITDA…

Zibby: Thank you. You’ll be my first call when I’m struggling in Excel.

John: Take care, Zibby.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye. Have a great day.

John: Bye.



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