An interview with Peter Biello

Author and BWW founder Peter Biello

Peter Biello, founder of the BWW and the organization’s Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series, has a short story (“The Man in the Orange Shorts”) featured in this year’s anthology. To hear Peter and other talented writers read from their work, join us on Friday, April 21, 6 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall for the Mud Season Review Vol. 3 & The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 launch party.  RSVP for this free event now >


You have a story included in this year’s book, but you’re also the founder of the Best Of series. Can you give readers a little background on how the anthology came to be? 

In 2012, a group of regular BWW attendees wanted to publish an anthology of work by folks who had attended at least one meeting. We weren’t as big an organization back then—we had no official business registration, no expenses except for the Meetup.com fees—but we did have a solid base of members we thought would submit work. So we raised a little more than $3,200 on Kickstarter and, long story short, we used that money to publish The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013.

Did you envision, at the start, that this series would still be going five years later? How has it changed over the years? And where do you see it going from here?

At the start, I wasn’t sure how The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2013 would be received by the public. But I did a lot of legwork selling these books, the idea being that the proceeds would finance the following year’s anthology. We got some good publicity in Seven Days and a few other media outlets, which helped the workshop itself grow. Membership swelled and interest in Best of as a publication swelled, too, so by then I was fairly certain the anthology would be around indefinitely.

The book’s quality seems to improve each year, which tells me (1) we’re still growing and deepening our bench of talent within the workshop and (2) the workshop is helping the writers who stick with a writing routine and attend workshops regularly. Little things about the book have changed. For example, we didn’t have our green logo when the first book came out, but since 2014 that little green circle has appeared on the spine of each book. Some versions of the book often reserve space for the author to discuss their story, as The Best American Short Stories anthology series always does. I like seeing that, but it’s not always necessary.

My hope is that the anthology doesn’t change too much. Consistency over time feels right to me. I like the brevity of it (144 pages seems right). I like the mix of genres. And I love the collaboration between workshop members serving as editors and those who have submitted work. The workshop is a social experience; the work we do requires that we put down our cell phones and talk to each other like human beings and sort out aesthetic differences. Like everything the BWW does, publishing this book is a learning experience.

Your story that’s featured in this year’s Best of (“The Man in the Orange Shorts”) is one you’ve workshopped through the Burlington Writers Workshop. Can you talk about how the story evolved through the workshop process?

Sure. This story was originally called “Boo’s House”—the man in the orange shorts was yelling for a guy named Boo in early drafts, not Charlie—but workshop members thought it was a little too reminiscent of Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Other interpretations involved ghosts. Those were not avenues down which I wanted my readers’ minds to travel, so I nixed the name “Boo”.

This story was the first piece I put before the workshop back in 2009. This was at the second or third (probably third) meeting of the workshop, which was held in someone’s backyard in Winooski. It may have been the first story that was emailed to participants in advance. Most of the time, in those early days, folks would just read stuff aloud at the meetings.

The story didn’t necessarily start as one about class guilt, but over the years, Sarah’s feelings about her new, privileged station in life stole the spotlight. The man in the orange shorts became a challenge to Sarah’s idea of herself as a generous, caring person. How many comforts would you give up to accommodate someone who is less fortunate? Everyone has a line. Sarah found hers.

When you submitted this story, you went through the same thing that all BWW members who submit to Best Of dowaiting to find out if your story got into the anthology. And, because we have a blind submission process, there was no guarantee your piece would be selected on the merits of the author being the anthology’s founder. You submit, and have had work featured in, many other journals. Is there anything different about waiting to hear from the anthology that represents your own writing community and the anthology you founded?

For me, there was no difference. I was glad that there was an anonymous way to submit. We don’t want even the perception that a story is published because of who the author is and not the story’s merits.

This is a story that, in some ways, the workshop deserves the credit for. I must have taken this story to the workshop at least three times over the years. Each time it had been significantly revised and I don’t think too many workshop participants saw this story more than once. I received a lot of suggestions. (Spoiler alert!) One suggestion came from our good friend Alexey Finkel, who said it was probably unwise of Sarah and Tim to bury the body in the backyard. I thought more about this and realized he was right, and the solution that Tim and Sarah came up with became another decision point for Sarah.

So—to get back to the question—I felt like the anthology deserved first crack at publishing it, so I didn’t send it anywhere else. If the workshop rejected it, I would have moved on to other markets. But I’m glad the editors took it.

What inspired the story of The Man in the Orange Shorts? You mention that it didn’t start out being an examination of class guilt. Where did it start and what sparked the ideaand its evolution?

An actual man in orange shorts inspired this. One night, when I was living in Wilmington, N.C., a man in orange shorts wandered up Market Street from his downtown hotel room and somehow found my living room door. There were two doors: a screen door, which we had left unlocked, and another door made entirely of small glass panels, which fortunately was locked. He was banging away at the glass door and screaming to get in. My wife at the time and I called the police, who took forever to get there. The cops determined he was on some kind of drug and simply drove him back to his hotel room. There was no justice. From that moment on, my wife was terrified of living there. The guy had ruined it for her. I was a little less frightened, probably because I’d grown up in a city where potentially dangerous people were more or less a fact of life.

That sparked the idea for the story. It was a very clear problem and good fiction often needs a clear problem. But how to solve it? Recently at my MFA workshops in Wilmington, we’d been talking about the idea of solving problems the simplest way possible. Your protagonist is going to try to solve the problem, but she can’t start with the extreme solution; she’ll lose the reader’s sympathy because she’s not acting logically. So she needs to start with a simple, logical solution everyone would turn to: call the police. If that doesn’t work, she needs to try a different solution. Build a fence, for example. If that doesn’t work, get a big, vicious dog. If that doesn’t work—well, wouldn’t you, as a reader, like to see what she does next?

All of the above, by the way, appeared in early drafts of this story. It became an exercise in escalating, failing solutions, hoping to make the extreme solution that she and Tim eventually use seem reasonable, if not admirable.

You mentioned that this story was workshopped several times. Is work shopping part of your writing process for all (or most) of your stories? And how does it fit into the overall process of writing? Do you find that stories often change as much as this one did through the workshop process?

I love the workshopping process. In some ways, it feels like a rough draft of a story is a dirty bit of laundry and the workshop is my laundry machine. And just like with a real laundry machine, some stains take more than one wash to clear up.

In general, I like going to the workshop with a piece once I’ve got a story with the beginning, middle, and end, and I’ve done everything I could possibly do without outside influence. One thing I don’t like in workshops—and what I’ve made sure we avoid at the BWW—is when the conversation steers toward rewriting the story at the workshop table. “Move this here” or “make this character do X” or other such comments can really hijack a story early in the process. Peer observations about what’s happening, without attempts to rewrite the story, can help an author steer a draft toward its true purpose. The story matures into itself. And I feel like my peers made keen observations that helped me see where this was going. Little seeds of class consciousness on Sarah’s part. Once I was in tune with that part of her, I followed the clues to see where they’d go.

This story changed more than most of my stories, but that may be a function of how long it took me to write it. I started it in 2009 and I finished it in 2017, so that’s eight years of writing a bit, then putting it aside for months or even a year, and then picking it up again and seeing it with fresh eyes. I grew as a writer. My sensibilities and interests changed and evolved. I suppose if you held up side by side the first draft and the last draft you’d think two different people took a crack at the same concept.

You’re working on a collection of short stories now. Can you share a little about that collection?

This collection features stories about people and living space. How does a home interact with the person living in it? How can a home generate conflict? And how can a home reflect someone’s emotional state? I don’t have a clear title for the collection yet, but I’ve got all the stories that I want to include.

One early reader of the entire collection, Megan Mayhew Bergman, told me that masculinity is one of the dominant themes. I had considered this a secondary theme, but I’m guessing this secondary theme going to stand out and perhaps overwhelm the first. Masculinity in general is not a subject I’m comfortable speaking about in public just yet.

The stories take place in Wilmington, N.C., Maine, and Cape Cod. Only one has any action in Vermont, but then those characters quickly move to New Hampshire. But the setting I’ve been happiest to revisit is my hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts. A few stories, including “The Man in the Orange Shorts,” take place in Fall River. It’s a former mill city that is now incredibly poor—high crime and high unemployment. The recession really hurt Fall River. It’s a place pounded by the opioid epidemic and there seems to be a strong belief there that addiction is not a disease, just a moral failing. I love the city in part because I carry so much of that place with me all the time—in the language I use, for example—but I don’t love it enough to live there. Writing about it occasionally is what I do instead.

What do you mean when you say you carry language with you?

Fall River’s language is unlike any I’ve heard anywhere else. It’s English with Portuguese words (slang or otherwise) sprinkled in. One of the obvious ones is chourico, that Portuguese sausage. It’s pronounced “sho-REESE” in Fall River. But it looks like “chorizo” and pronounced “sho-REE-zo” everywhere else. Another one I felt inclined to use recently was “quackish,” which refers to underwear. I’m not sure I’m spelling that correctly. There are others. They’re mostly dirty words, but you get the idea. Sometimes that language appears in my stories and I think those moments feel real, though they may seem like errors to readers who don’t know the city.

What’s your next project?

Well, I’ll probably spend the summer tidying up these stories about houses/masculinity and then searching for an agent. I’d also like to try my hand at writing a novel about the Lizzie Borden trial—another Fall River story—but I’d like it to not have much Lizzie Borden in it. I think that’s the cliché those who write about Lizzie Borden fall into. Rather than tell it from Lizzie’s perspective, I’d like to tell it from the perspective of someone who has had romantic feelings for her but has never expressed them. I think his anguish during the trial will drive him to do stupid things, and that seems like a fun challenge for me. How do I portray a man doing stupid things in 1892 and still make the reader like him? I’ve got some work to do.

More about Peter

Peter Biello is a reporter and the host of All Things Considered on New Hampshire Public Radio. His stories have appeared in Gargoyle, Lowestoft Chronicle, South 85 Journal, and other publications. Born in Fall River, Massachusetts, he now lives in Concord, New Hampshire.

To hear Peter and others read their work from this year’s anthology, join us for The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017 and Mud Season Review vol. 3 print launch party: Friday, April 21, 2017 6-9:30 p.m. at Contois Auditorium in Burlington’s City Hall. RSVP now >

More about The Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop 2017

This book is the fifth installment in the Best of the Burlington Writers Workshop series. Founded in 2013, the annual anthology features work that is written, selected, and edited by BWW members. The mission of the anthology is to showcase the work of new, emerging, and established Vermont writers while offering Vermonters the opportunity to learn first-hand about the editing, publishing, and book marketing process. The 2017 edition will be available for purchase soon. Learn more or purchase a copy of past anthologies in the series >