"World's best tiny book club" to hold session at The Mount

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GREAT BARRINGTON — As editor of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's "The Best American Short Stories" anthology, Heidi Pitlor belongs to what she calls "the world's best tiny book club."

Every year since 2007, Pitlor teams up with a literary luminary to select the top short stories appearing in U.S. or Canadian periodicals by authors who "have made the United States their home," according to Pitlor's website. Procrastination is not an option in this 102-year-old club.

"Every magazine that publishes fiction in the country comes to me, and I read all of [it]," Pitlor said.

Pitlor eventually picks 120 stories to recommend to that year's guest editor, whom Pitlor and an in-house editor at Houghton Mifflin choose. That editor whittles Pitlor's list down to 20 for the annual volume. The goal is to find an editor who is both commercially and critically successful. Gender and genre focus also are factors.

"We try to keep it diverse in some way so that it's different every year," Pitlor said.

This year, that editor is Meg Wolitzer. She is best known for her novel, "The Interestings," but she has also had a short story land in the anthology previously. On Nov. 19, she will appear with Pitlor at The Mount, answering questions about the series and current trends in short fiction.

"She's a wonderful, funny writer," Pitlor said of why she opted for Wolitzer. She also mentioned that the past two series editors, Junot Diaz and T.C. Boyle, were men. "It was probably time for a woman. ... [Meg] has really smart, powerful things to say about women and family, and I thought she would bring a really interesting eye to the series."

Pitlor said that she spoke over the phone and traded emails with Wolitzer regularly during the selection process, one that varies each year depending on the writer's preferences.

"And it should [vary] because they're all different people, and people have different processes," Pitlor said.

Before that process begins, Pitlor takes notes on the short stories she's reading, grades them and arranges them on shelves based on her assessments, "a physical reminder of what I thought was best," she said.

"One of my big things is, when I am reading a story, do I forget that I'm reading? ... I like to be kind of so in it that I'm unaware of everything around me," she said, adding that rare stories can elicit the opposite sensation effectively. "I look for energy in writing, some kind of urgency in the subject matter."

Her selections may largely be dictated by her taste, but she tries to guess what her future co-editor will enjoy, too.

"I narrow it down with a vague sense of what they might like," she said.

That doesn't mean she can read minds. "Geraldine Brooks is a passionate fan of science fiction, and I would not have known that from her work," Pitlor said of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who served as the series' guest editor in 2011.

Pitlor, a novelist who lives in the Boston area, is the fifth editor of the anthology. When she took the position following a stint as a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, she received some advice from her predecessors.

"Read everything. Don't assume that because something's in a big magazine that it'll be good and, if it's in a small magazine, it won't be," she said.

Organization also was critical.

"You have to come up with your own system. I'm the fifth series editor in 100 years, so each person had their own way to deal with the madness," she said.

Edward O'Brien, the anthology's first editor beginning in 1915, would disappear into his study on Friday and return on Sunday, according to Pitlor. She said he would keep meticulous charts to track his opinions as he read stories. His successor, Martha Foley, would use index cards to jog her memory, Pitlor said.

Once Pitlor has submitted her list to the guest editor, her work isn't finished. She views herself as a "guard rail," ensuring that the guest editor's choices represent a variety of different perspectives.

"You don't want to have 20 stories from The New Yorker, you know. You don't want to have 20 stories by men," she said.

Subject matter and settings are also vital.

"'OK, you didn't notice this, but you have eight stories about Ohio, and they're a little bit similar in this way ... I think there's this one that you overlooked [that] was really strong, so why don't you take another look at that,'" Pitlor said she would hypothetically advise a co-editor.

The strength of the submissions this year was a challenge for Pitlor and Wolitzer.

"We probably would've wanted more stories in there," Pitlor said.

Pitlor is seeing more diversity in short fiction, and stories are incorporating more technology.

"If you're writing about something set in this time, and technology plays no part, I'm always a little bit suspect — unless it's making a statement," she said.

Lauren Groff, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jai Chakrabarti and Emma Cline all feature in this volume, and Pitlor says it's a particularly strong year. That isn't always the case; many great novelists and other writers never master the short story.

"There's nowhere you can hide as a writer in a short story. It's a much more unforgiving form, and I think everything's kind of magnified," she said. "In a novel, it's sort of a house instead of a room."

And every year, Pitlor gets to visit a different writer's mental space.

"I just get a window into their thinking process," she said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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