Three days a week I got dressed up like an adult and rode the 8:13 commuter rail from Providence to Boston. There I joined eight other eager college students and recent grads in a narrow brick room on the fifth floor of 77 North Washington Street, across from the men's bathroom. The intern office is home to three fluorescent lights, six iMacs, and one deceptively small gray file cabinet filled with unsolicited short stories.
The Atlantic Monthly receives somewhere around 11,000 fiction submissions a year, the authors of which range from published writers to deranged inmates to MFA students to retired grade-school teachers and naval officers. Of these submissions, eleven appear in the magazine. The man in charge of choosing the golden eleven is C. Michael Curtis, a senior editor who has been at the magazine since 1962. Even if C. Michael Curtis could read 11,000 stories a year (and I am sure he could), he has other things to attend to. This is where the interns come in. In addition to being fact checkers, photocopiers, and mail openers, interns at the Atlantic act as first readers for many of the unsolicited submissions from unknown authors (also known as the slush pile).
Sometimes, while reading through the slush pile, I felt like one of those people you see wandering aimlessly at the beach with their metal detectors, stubbornly determined to cover every inch of sand in search of treasure. I knew that there was treasure to be found. A long time ago, one of the interns' fathers discovered Margaret Atwood in that same slush pile. Finding the treasure just takes a lot of sifting through stories like "Love After Dark, Part One," "An Indomitable Potato," and "Haunt-Dog," the story of a hound dog who haunts his former owners "until they learn about love, loyalty, and the true meaning of Christmas." At points it was positively grueling.
In my three months at the Atlantic I read somewhere around 200 stories, about twenty of which I sent along to Curtis with a short write-up explaining what I liked about them. A large portion of these I wrote up only because the author was an MFA student or had been published elsewhere. But I also sent along a few unknown, unpublished writers. And although none of them is going to appear in the magazine, most received encouraging little letters from Curtis asking them to try again. Besides fact-checking a John Updike story (and correcting two of his mistakes), these discoveries were by far the most rewarding part of my summer.
As somewhat of an aspiring writer myself (see Studentside, September/October 2000), I find it comforting to know someone out there is reading unsolicited manuscripts - even if it is a snarky intern. But more than giving me comfort, the internship taught me some important lessons about writing and magazines in general: Always spell check. Try to make lots of contacts. Never wear white socks with dress pants. Print your cover letters on nice paper. And I would like to think I have a better sense of what makes a good story. Career Center, your money was well spent.
Michael Lukas is a former BAM intern.