On “Forty Days in the Desert,” by R.T. Jamison
(Click here to read an excerpt of the story.)
“Why we chose it” is, perhaps, a disingenuous title for this essay series. The only person who ultimately chooses the work that is published in The Kenyon Review and KROnline is our editor, David Lynn. The rest of us, from student readers to contributing editors to fiction and poetry editors, simply pass submissions along for consideration. We decide whether a story or a poem has moved us or surprised us or delighted us, and then we pass it up the line. “Forty Days in the Desert” by R.T. Jamison provides a good example of the route a piece of fiction can take from entering our submission system to appearing on the printed page.
Once Jamison submitted his story, it was assigned, as many submissions are, to two student readers. We spend a great deal of time and energy training our students to read submissions, and once we feel they are ready, they jump into the submissions pool. Work assigned to student readers is always assigned to two students. They are each asked to vote yes or no individually—a yes vote means that something in the story, even something small, seemed worthy of a second read. “Forty Days in the Desert” got one yes vote and one no vote—that means it automatically went up to an editorial reader at the next level. (For those interested: last year, about one in four submissions assigned to student readers received at least one “yes” vote and was passed up to the next level for a second reading.)
That’s how I found myself reading this story on a cold day in February last winter. A story all about sand. The first lines set the scene: “It’s raining sand. Fine, warm, flaxen sand. It drifts down like powdered sugar and dusts the trees and lawn furniture.” What a great opening. Where are we? Raining sand is pretty strange, but lawn furniture sounds normal. The sand isn’t pounding down or obliterating, but lightly dusting, drifting. It’s warm and flaxen—it sounds pleasant, unusual but not menacing. Jamison sets the reader in the middle of a landscape at once recognizable and otherworldly. Mysterious sand falls from the sky and begins to blanket a junky front yard; sand that eventually cannot be ignored, as it piles up on lawn furniture, a skittish Rottweiler, an “abused aluminum utility boat”; sand that the main character, Noah Lamb, matter-of-factly starts sweeping off his front porch, and eventually clearing into two-foot piles with a leaf blower; sand that steadily attracts Noah’s neighbors, and then camera crews, and then pilgrims. In these early, establishing paragraphs, Jamison evokes the sound and hiss and feel of sand through his precise syntax and use of sibilance and alliteration:
“No one seems to notice the slow buildup of grit, a grainy patina on what many neighbors already consider an eyesore”
“Noah notices a stream of sand skiing off the brim of his hat . . .”
“The shushing sound of untold grains of sand tumbling on everything and everyone”
Once I’ve been hooked by the opening, my next thought is usually “please don’t let me down—you’ve done such a good job so far.” Jamison doesn’t disappoint. He expands the story outward from Noah’s sandy yard and imagines how this “miracle” is picked up by the local news, by an advertising man on the make, and by Noah’s good (and not-so-good) friends. Jamison holds in tension the fantastical sand, constantly flowing downward from the sky, with the opportunistic reaction of everyone involved. By the time I got to the end of the story, I knew I wanted to pass it along, but the question was to whom should I send it?
I have to admit that I wasn’t completely sure of myself with this story. I was intrigued by the conceit, and impressed by Jamison’s carefully wrought sentences, but didn’t know if it measured up to KR’s standards. Was it too weird? Too fantastical? In the end, did it completely hold together? I wasn’t quite ready to send it straight to David Lynn, so I took a sideways path and forwarded the story on to our associate editor, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky. Happily, Sergei agreed that the story had merit, but saw where it could use some editing. He passed it along to David for the OK to get in touch with the author, and then sent a detailed message about how he thought Jamison might tighten and improve the story for publication. The author revised the story accordingly, and soon afterwards David accepted it for publication.
And that’s how one story went from slush to the Summer 2014 issue. Most of the time, why (or how) we choose it ends up being a group exercise—it’s not just one lonely editor sitting in a darkened room in front of a computer. Stories and poems are passed up from initial readers to second and third readers, and a lucky few finally end up in the editor’s inbox. Much like the accumulating sand in Jamison’s story, as a submission moves through the system, it accumulates advocates who voice their support and pass it along to see if others agree, on its way to a final decision. I like to think that “Forty Days in the Desert,” was chosen for its originality, well-drawn characters, and masterful command of language, but you’d have to ask David to be sure.