Rita Juster, Reading Committee

Rita Juster is one of Carve’s biggest fans. Her love of literature is evident from the dedication she puts towards reading and evaluating Carve submissions and from the passion with which she talks about story, but she didn’t follow a linear path to get to this point in her life. In our Staff Spotlight this month she tells us how she found her way to literature, and what she loves about being a reader for Carve.

Tell us about why you initially studied business.

Well, I wasn’t the elementary school student whose teachers wrote “Great Story!” on her papers, but I did hustle to sell the most fundraiser candy bars or wrapping paper. Unlike writers who discovered the magic of reading literature at an early age, my sense of the world, and my own salvation, didn’t come from books. This was because none of the characters or stories reflected my life back to me. My degree, paid for by myself, needed to land me a job if I wanted to escape the factories of my summers, so I took a chance and majored in business, which few women were doing back then, but it worked out.

And you went on to earn your MBA?

The company who hired me scored Affirmative Action compliance points for awarding me their first female management trainee position in the southwest, fifteen hundred miles away from where I grew up. The payment for my self-induced loneliness included a company car and a night school MBA, which seemed pretty awesome at the time, despite the barbs for being a woman invader of the male-dominated commercial real estate industry in a city where downtown social clubs barred women from the main dining room during lunch.

When did you discover your love of literature and writing?

I eventually married and started my own company that failed during the crash of the late eighties. That’s when I stayed home to raise three children, planning to eventually start a new business. As a lark, I took a fiction class. This really cracked me open in unexpected ways. We learned about characters, their motivations, and sources of conflict—things I had never considered. It got me thinking about life in a deeper way. Every story I wrote or read rewired my brain a little more. I recognized where my own life lacked honesty, and I made painful changes. I discovered empathy and compassion, and best of all, the beauty of language.

Why did you decide to get your MFA?

After writing intensely for a decade, one of my initial summer workshop instructors, Pinckney Benedict, encouraged me to pursue an MFA, for which I’ll always be grateful. My graduation in January 2010 from a low-residency program (Queens University of Charlotte) marked almost twenty-nine years to the day from my MBA walk. Perhaps a life can span opposite poles, and it’s our challenge to blend parts of both into our own unique combination of the two and, well, carry on.

And how did you get to be a reader for Carve?

I founded a local writers’ workshop in Dallas and invited Kristin vanNamen, Carve’s managing editor, to be the instructor. After working together for two years, Kristin mentioned the reader opportunity. It was, and is, a great honor. She later moved on, and I eventually started a different workshop with Matthew Limpede, Carve’s current editor, as the instructor. He asked me to be a contest reader.

What’s a story you read for Carve that still sticks out in your mind? Why does it stick out?

There are actually four published stories that have stayed with me: “Neuropathy,” “The Gymnast,” “The White Rabbit,” and “Whiskey and Ribbons,” were all assigned to me as first reader. Each pulled me in, beginning with the opening line, with language that shifted my consciousness. We think of this as voice, which to me is the infusion of text with a writer’s own unique perspective to create an experience for the reader that is transformative.

Since “The White Rabbit” became the first Carve story that I championed and then saw published, it will always be special as well as memorable. I love the way the author places us in the POV of an alcoholic. We witness her abuse of the trust that’s been given to her by her husband and coworkers and her outrageous antics, but she remains blind to this herself. She sees only her own desires and the way other people “fail” her. This double-vision for the reader - the main character’s views and the other characters’ - is portrayed by the skillful use of subtext. The writer also employs smart dialogue. She creates shifts in the text that mimic inebriation while retaining authorial control. Interior monologue juxtaposed with the words and actions of the other characters creates an experience for the reader that evokes a kind of nausea and even horror. It’s just great, and when it was published, I felt almost as terrific as if I’d written it myself because others recognized its same elegance, which made me feel validated as a reader. This happened with the other stories, too.

It’s my job to tag stories that I think will thrill lovers of literature and that writers will appreciate for their mastery and originality. Every Carve submitter is brave. Finding stories that are both exceptional and that meet the Carve sensibility poses the biggest challenge. Since “honest fiction” is not formulaic, the concept of finding something that fits the Carve sensibility, as if it can be defined, is paradoxical. However, similar paradoxes, like using the local to reach the universal, are what drive literary fiction. Still, it remains a matter of taste. At least two stories that I nixed ended up getting published, and other stories that I liked didn’t. I trust our editors and other readers to provide the best selection of submissions to put forth.

What types of stories, plot-lines, or characters are you tired of reading?

I’m not tired of anything along those lines per se since it’s the writer’s job to “make it new” as Pound advised. But having said that, what does tire me are characters from certain regions of the country (or world) where the accents take over the story. I’m talking about contractions such as ain’t, cain’t, darlin’, etc. Or, using the word “fuck” fifty times in twenty pages. It’s just a shortcut we shouldn’t be taking. And there’s the flat-out porn. Seriously. Such “stories” were probably simultaneously sent to Hustler, or at least should have been.

Other than those examples, what tires me is the formulaic, genre type of writing, which I consider to be anything that lacks vulnerability. These employ mechanistic dialogue, characters who don’t ring true, adjectives and adverbs that invade every page like weeds, no complex tension, more recounting of events than actual scenes, or stories that put plot above all else. What matters more than plot is the treatment of the characters, their psychological makeup, the use of setting, and most important, language; all elements used to create something original, something that re-envisions what we’ve seen countless times so that we can understand it in a new way. Yes, plot is important, but I care more about a character’s reaction to what happened, than what actually happened, although, don’t get me wrong, what happened is important, too. The most important element is the language, the way a writer structures sentences and scenes that stimulate the reader’s imagination, that make room for the reader and that doesn’t do all the work, leaving nowhere for the reader to go but where the writer directs.

What do you do when you’re not reading stories for Carve?

I’m either researching for or writing my own fiction or memoir, traveling, exploring my new neighborhood in the French Quarter of New Orleans, reading published works, critiquing the works-in-progress of friends, seeing a movie with my husband, playing blackjack at the casino a few blocks away, learning more about IlluminEssensce, a system of energy that’s been allowing me to heighten my creativity, or doing nothing so ideas for stories and characters can show up.

What’s your favorite quote about writing?

The first draft is for you, the second is for the reader.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard? The worst?

The best: Don’t be afraid to write badly. You know, the shitty first draft thing. The worst: Creative writing can’t be taught.