Twenty years ago this month, a dozen boxes of our first issue arrived at my office door. With startup money from the provost at Boise State, I had spent months putting the issue together with graduate student Quinn Pritchard. As a former editor at Black Warrior Review, I wanted to model the new journal on what I’d learned in Tuscaloosa. My colleagues and I were hoping the launch of The Idaho Review might signal the serious intent we had for our new MFA program, set to begin the following year.
The public reaction to the new journal surprised us all. The late Alan Cheuse of NPR wrote us to say:
The first issue is so splendid an inaugural, I don’t know that I’ve seen, in fact, a first issue of a magazine or journal with such a high-quality list of contributors, and such good work by them, since the old early days of some of the best magazines we know, Partisan Review, Paris Review, and such. Congratulations.
Legendary editor Rust Hills read the inaugural issue on a cross country flight and sent a handwritten note to my office: “A nice lot of fiction to read. Congratulations on the magazine.” I still have that note framed on my desk.
Several months later, I was flipping through the new edition of The Best American Short Stories at a local bookstore. To my delight, I discovered that three selections from our first issue had been shortlisted in the top 100 stories of 1999: Ann Beattie, Richard Bausch, and Robert Olmstead. It was an exciting start, to say the least.
In the fifteen years that followed, we had twelve stories selected for reprint in the national prize anthologies:
The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Pushcart Prize, New Stories from the South, and Best of the West. Another twenty-eight of our stories were shortlisted by these same prize anthologies. For a journal that publishes once a year, we’ve had a pretty good track record.
Along the way, we’ve had the honor and thrill to publish fiction by Joy Williams, T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Carolyn Cooke, Rick Bass, Percival Everett, Doris Betts, Anthony Doerr, Edith Pearlman, Charles Baxter, Lee K. Abbott, Carol Bly, Stuart Dybek, Pam Durban, Alyson Hagy, Bret Lott, and Pam Houston.
While they were both still MFA students, we published the early stories of Jennifer Haigh and Benjamin Percy. When Ben won our Editor’s Prize in 2004, he thought our phone call was a prank from one of his friends. He offered to buy the office a round after we convinced him otherwise.
One of my favorite publishing stories involves Adam Desnoyers. George Saunders, Adam’s teacher, had taken an early copy of the journal into the MFA workshop at Syracuse. Later in the semester, Adam sent us a story so amazing my students immediately pulled the manuscript from the slush pile. It would become Adam’s first published story, and then was reprinted in the 2003 issue of The O. Henry Prize Stories. Adam’s story appeared alongside “Kissing” by Bill Kittredge, another story from The Idaho Review that won an O. Henry Award that year.
Carrying on a tradition of my time at Black Warrior Review, we publish a poetry chapbook in each issue, sometimes featuring two in a single volume. Our chapbook and poetry series has included the work of John Kinsella, Debora Greger, Dave Smith, Larissa Szporluk, Robert Wrigley, Brendan Galvin, James Harms, Michael Waters, Kelly Cherry, Lawrence Raab, and Michael Blumenthal.
Literary journals are, of course, a true labor of love. Ours is no different. With one GA each semester and a staff of MFA students, we have published over 250 writers since our inaugural issue. In true DIY spirit, I format and edit the entire issue on my office computer.
We’ve never had any paid staff members. Each fall in my editing and publishing class, the MFA students and I select the manuscripts and run them through editorial meetings that span many hours per writer.
The dedication and passion of these MFA students never fails to give me hope for our literary future. Indeed, our past and current staff members—Meghan Kenny, Al Heathcock, Cynthia Hand, Tyler McMahon, Erin Rose Belair, Tim Griffith, Ariel Delgado Dixon, Mary Pauline Lowry, to name a few—have published hundreds of their own stories in places like Tin House, Glimmer Train, Zoetrope, McSweeny’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, and Narrative, and have novels and collections with Norton, Simon & Schuster, Harper, St. Martin’s Press, and Graywolf.
And now to the issue you are holding. In addition to the great fiction and poetry, we have an interview with the multi-talented George Pelecanos. Pelecanos has been at the forefront of the trend of fiction writers working in the TV writers’ room. This interview follows-up on a conversation from our last issue with screenwriter Heather Marion of Better Call Saul.
We are also very excited to publish our first play ever, written by New York playwright David Simpatico. Wilde about Whitman imagines the few hours Oscar Wilde spent with Walt Whitman during a winter afternoon in Camden, New Jersey, in 1882.
The various modes of storytelling in this issue reflect the recent changes we’ve made at Boise State. Our new Department of Theatre, Film, and Creative Writing puts the storytellers under one roof. In our Narrative TV Initiative, fiction and screenwriting students write three episodes of an original TV show in their writers’ room class, then join film and theatre students in our pre-production, production, and post-production classes to make the scripts a reality. These students work alongside professional actors and filmmakers from Boise to produce the episodes. This new show is screened at the historic Egyptian Theatre in Boise, then submitted to film festivals around the country. It’s a hands-on experience we think will prepare our students for life beyond the classroom.
To reflect our belief in the value of storytelling, our department now offers a new BFA degree in Narrative Arts, where students study fiction writing, screenwriting, playwriting, and creative nonfiction, and take classes in film, acting, and the fundamentals of long-form narrative.
I’d like to thank the National Endowment for the Arts for providing generous grants during perilous times to keep The Idaho Review afloat. At Boise State, the support of President Robert Kustra, Provosts Daryl Jones and Martin Schimpf, and Dean Tony Roark have been invaluable in keeping our journal alive. At a time when many administrations have shuttered literary journals, Boise State has continued to champion our cause. Their unflagging support has allowed us to focus our attention on publishing the best work we can find.
I also wish to thank the writers who have submitted their short stories, novel excerpts, poems, and essays over the years, and all the MFA students who have worked diligently to bring those words out into the world in the best way possible. When I started the journal, I was asked if we really needed a new literary journal. I said I thought it couldn’t hurt. Now more than ever, I believe we need the wisdom, insight, and solace writers can offer us. I salute all the editors who make literary journals a vibrant part of our daily lives.
This issue is dedicated to the late Denis Johnson, who spent the fall semester of 2015 in residence at Boise State as our Visiting Distinguished Writer. Since I was MFA director, Denis called me boss man when he saw me, always with a twinkle in his eye. Knowing my love of his novel Already Dead—and my interest in plot and structure—he once told me he’d started that novel with a full plot outline. He said he “wrote it down and everything.” The only trouble, Denis added, was that no one could find the plot when he was done with the book. His generosity of spirit, and the kindness he showed the students and faculty, was without measure. He is sorely missed.