‘The Dog’ Has Its Day

Winnsboro native and RWA grad Jack Livings during a recent stop at a café in Rome. His short story collection “The Dog” was released this week.

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Winnsboro native Jack Livings is the newest literary light in the New York publishing world. His debut short story collection, “The Dog,” was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Tuesday as the first of a two-book deal, and it’s been selected by Barnes & Noble for their Fall 2014 Discover Great New Writers Program.

Livings, 40, is the International Editor in Licensing and Syndication at Time, Inc., and was previously an Editorial Director at Newsweek. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, writer Jennie Yabroff, and their daughters, ages 2 and 9.

Raised in Winnsboro, Livings graduated from Richard Winn Academy in 1992. His mother, Laurens “Bootsie” McMaster Livings, a music teacher and retired opera singer, said she’s delighted that he’s able to return home several times a year.

After majoring in English at Davidson College, Livings earned a Masters in Fine Arts in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. In 2000, he was one of five writers selected for the prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship in Fiction at Stanford University.

Livings was a contributing editor at the Paris Review for three years, and his stories have been published in numerous literary journals. The eponymous story from his new collection was included in the Best American Short Stories collection of 2006.

“The Dog” draws on Livings’ experiences in China in the mid 1990s as a university student and English teacher. According to a review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, Livings’ collection is “an incisive – and highly impressive – debut.” She writes that, “Mr. Livings demonstrates his virtuosity as a storyteller, his ability to immerse us instantly in the lives of his characters, to conjure the daily reality of the very different worlds they inhabit.”

“I was in Beijing in 1994,” he said in an interview with The Voice on Tuesday, “and I went back to travel around the country in 1997. I suspect that if I’d been able to go back on any kind of regular basis between then and now, I might not have been writing these stories. They’re a little bit nostalgic, in a way – I don’t mean that they’re sentimental, but when you’re separated from something you love, you think about it a lot. And I did – I thought about China an awful lot. There was a period of time when I read about China every day, extensively. I’d get tons of news reports and email digests, and I was processing a lot of information.”

He said the many remarkable and sometimes absurd-seeming situations in China are what draw his interest.

“From the Western perspective, there are a lot of puzzles [in Chinese culture], a lot of strange things that keep me in a constant state of interest. There’s a lot of material for fiction. The starting points for most of my stories are questions: ‘why in the world did that happen?’ or ‘why did that person make that decision?’ I write a story to try and understand it, or try to explain it to myself.”

Livings credits Richard Winn Academy with being “hugely influential” to his success.

“My English teacher, Selwyn Turner, pushed me hard not to rely on talent,” he said. “She’s an extraordinary teacher who did something that I don’t know if anybody does anymore – she taught us to diagram sentences. Learning how to break a sentence down enables you to learn to think logically. And for me, specifically, doing what I do, it was enormously helpful. I’ve still got her voice in my head a lot of the time when I write.

“I had a lot of phenomenal teachers, like Ellen Nicholson in art and music. And even though I was horrible at math, John McSwain was a great math teacher. His math classes were the closest thing to college-level discussions that I had in high school. The premise was always some kind of logic problem that we were trying to work out, and then it would spiral off into a philosophical discussion about politics, or athletics vs. academics. Those folks put so much time into trying to get us all on board and up to speed.”

Livings’ book launch reading was held at 192 Books in Manhattan on Tuesday evening, and he will be doing readings in Brooklyn, Washington, D.C. and California. He’s already writing his next book, a novel set in a New York City snowstorm in the late 1970s.

“And I have to get to work every day, too,” he said, adding that he always starts writing early, before the day fills up with family and professional obligations.

“I get up to write between 4 and 4:30 – when distractions are minimal, and it’s easier to concentrate. That’s when the world feels quiet.”

“The Dog” is available for purchase on Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble and through independent bookstores.