Publishing in The New Yorker was one of those milestones that was certainly a big deal. And I think it really eased my father's mind because as a working class kid and a cop's son in Chicago, he was seriously worried that I was suffering a delusion. I mean this idea of being a writer
So for him this was real legitimacy, and that was great. It helped the two of us a lot. But, it was much better than anything else I had written, that story, so when people came forward because they had never heard of me and said, "Gee, what else have you got?" and I showed them, they were disappointed. So in a way I think it was one of those rewards that came a little too early, and as a result the story sort of hung over me. I thought, "I'll never top it, blah, blah, blah."
So by the fall of '88 I was starting to write better and getting better feedback when I would send things out, which I did relentlessly. I had a whole system. My rule was the minute a manuscript came back, I would send it out again immediately. I kept lots of postage on hand because I wanted to convert that disappointment back into hope. I kept very careful records of where everything had been, and I had little symbols for: nice form rejection letter, personal scribble on the letter
I had a little symbol for every one of those gradations. I'm sure I still have all of them somewhere.
But it kept me busy and feeling like I was liaison-ing in some way with the writing establishment, and I think I needed to feel that. In a way it was sort of a slow continuum from that point on. I see that as the beginning of a long trajectory that I'm still on. I didn't move. I stayed and became a New Yorker, really. I can't even imagine living anywhere else
If I take a big step back, and use your analogy of the river, it's been a gradual process. I guess now [with the Pulitzer Prize win] is the exception. This feels like a quantum change, which is strange after such a gradual progression. It's surprising to have that.
Very exciting, very un-looked-for. Having never been someone who expected or received that sort of anointment, it was a deeply shocking paradigm shift for me to think that that could actually happen to me. I had sort of defined myself—not unhappily—as a person who didn't go that route but kept going, just trying to get a little better, and usually did get a little better each time too. So it just showed me what I already knew: there really are no rules about who does and doesn't get this stuff. It's luck and chance and things can line up in anyone's favor.
Jeremiah Chamberlin teaches Contemporary American Literature, Fiction, Creative Nonfiction, and Literary Journalism at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. A Contributing Editor for Poets & Writers Magazine, his work has appeared in Absinthe, Flyway, Glimmer Train, Granta, The New York Times Book Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Vagabond, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is the co-author with Eileen Pollack and Natalie Bakopoulos of Creative Composition. Most recently, he is the recipient of a 2016-2017 Fulbright Research Scholarship.