Editor's Notes, Volume 16, Number 2

February 26, 2015

Editor's Notes, Volume 16, Number 2


Some of the best writing speaks in that realm, whether we are readers of compelling nonfiction or, perhaps especially, when we struggle as writers to get such stories onto the page. One writer who gets this complexity is Justin Heckert, whose literary reporting, “Susan Cox Is No Longer Here,” first published in Indianapolis Monthly, is featured in this issue. The title character of Heckert’s piece—flinty, cantankerous, desperately ill—simply refuses to do what we expect of her, either as a literary character or as a real person. And, as River Teeth readers know, it is the knife’s edge between those worlds that endlessly worries and fascinates us.

We asked Heckert for his thoughts about Susan Cox, the person and the character, and this is what he gave us: “This piece is an example of how a story never turns out the way we think it will, how stories can turn into something else, entirely, and how writers become a part of them.”

Not surprisingly, it turns out that Heckert can’t shake Susan Cox.

“I do my best not to think about this story,” he says. “I’ve pushed it away. I don’t like to talk to classes about it, or to talk to people who have read it, who bring it up. I hate that Please, don’t leave was something she asked of me, and I said that I wouldn’t, and then I didn’t keep my word. Two nights in the same week, this past November, when I found out this story would be reprinted in River Teeth, I woke up in the middle of the night and had visions of someone, in the darkened upstairs bedroom of our Victorian home; someone watching me, someone that wanted to tell me something. I pulled out my iPhone both times, and shined its flashlight in the corner. I told my wife, who did not want to speak about it, because she doesn’t like to talk about ghosts.”


We will let you discover for yourselves what it was about Susan Cox that affected her author so deeply. Fair warning: She just might haunt you as well. “Susan Cox Is No Longer Here” is a sterling example of the sort of literary nonfiction we have been proud to offer our readers. For sixteen years now, River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative has striven to be a compelling blend of memoir, essays, literary journalism, and critical commentaries on the nonfiction form and its authors. You will find excellent examples of all four forms in this issue, as well as the delicious hybrids that we love not being able to classify. We bring writers who work in literary journalism into community with memoirists and essayists more comfortable in the MFA world of Associated Writing Programs. We each have so much to learn from the other. From Pulitzer Prize winners to reporters for small-town dailies, the journalists published by River Teeth enliven compelling stories with old-fashioned reporting, offering precise description, memorable dialogue, sure scene writing, and challenging narrative structure.

Of the more than two thousand manuscripts that we read and review each year, we would guess that about three-quarters might best be classified as memoir: personal stories mined from the lives and memories of their writers. Another quarter might be better termed essays, though the boundary between essay and memoir often is vexed and permeable.

So if memoir and essays virtually make up all the manuscripts sent to us, where do we find the best literary journalism and critical commentaries? The answer is that in large part we mine for them, as we wrote in this space last year, shaping multi-layered River Teeth volumes across genres that we hope will haunt our readers.

To that end, we have invited Matt Tullis, founder and guru of Gangrey: the Podcast, to help us find and feature the sorts of literary journalists who rarely send work to venues like River Teeth, but who deserve to be read in the company of our best essay writers and memoirists. Along with the journal’s co-editors, Matt will be prowling long-form narrative journalism venues, both online and in print, to offer our readers the best literary journalism out there today. In the meantime, check out Matt’s online archive of Gangrey podcasts for interviews with established and emerging literary journalists about the sorts of writing strategies and craft that can benefit all nonfiction genres.

We are thrilled that Matt introduced us to Justin Heckert and, through him, to Susan Cox. And we fully expect that these sorts of nonfiction characters will continue to go bump in the night.



Joe MackallAt the time I’m writing this, Judith Kitchen has been gone for just over a month. It somehow simultaneously feels shorter and longer than that. The afternoon I emailed to let her know how excited River Teeth was to accept her beautiful and heart-breaking essay “Breath,” she told me I’d made her day because she had learned just that morning that one of her lungs had collapsed. Although I hated learning of more bad news for her, I was glad I’d emailed when I did. I have no doubt, despite her characteristic generosity that day, that Judith “made” her own days, through bad times and good, with her love for family, friends, language, and story. We will all miss her terribly. However, because she gave so much, she leaves so much behind. She is the “breathing green” to anybody who knew her or read her.

As she writes in the final paragraph of “Breath,” “You are gone, while they stay on—the blue glass goblet on the windowsill, the wooden box with your grandmother’s letters, all outliving you. Will your last clear breath make its own whistle—intake or exhale—or slide softly, softly into a whisper, then nothing? Air diffused by more air, until the colors of the world come clear: yellow, purple, blue, red. And green. The breathing green of what goes on.”

This issue is dedicated to the memory and majesty of our friend Judith Kitchen.


Keywords: 16-2, editors notes
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