Contributor Spotlight: S. P. Tenhoff

“Ichiban” by S. P. Tenhoff appeared in Issue 14 and can be read here.

Tell us a little about “Ichiban.”

I’ve never thought a writer does himself any favors by explaining his work. It’s like a comedian having to explain his punchlines. Whatever you have to express should be contained in the writing itself. Having said that, when I think of this story I remember a line from “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” a Radiohead song describing humans as “these weird creatures who lock up their spirits, drill holes in themselves, and live for their secrets.” I wasn’t thinking of that line specifically when I wrote “Ichiban,” but it does a good job of encapsulating what’s going on with the central character.

What was the most difficult part about this story?

I originally wrote the dialogue in Japanese, which required me to then translate my own words into English. Not an easy task. It makes you appreciate those writers who can pull it off. There’s Samuel Beckett, of course. And Hemingway, in his Spain stories. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a great example: English that somehow captures the essence of Spanish without the awkwardness of direct translation, and then that tremendous interior monologue at the end where the two languages are blended together. But what I found, when I tried to translate my writing, was that the English just didn’t sound natural. The problem, obviously, is that Japanese, or any language, is full of words and expressions that can’t be translated without providing footnotes or clumsy explanatory passages. I opted to let the language sound strange and “foreign” rather than sacrificing the authenticity of the characters’ voices, but I’m not sure how well it works. Anyway, for me this issue – rendering another language into convincing English – is an ongoing challenge.

Recommend a book for us which was published in the last decade.

Rudolph Wurlitzer’s The Drop Edge of Yonder. This isn’t the first book to tackle the meaning of the “American experiment,” and Wurlitzer’s not the first to use the Western as a way of doing it. But his take is unlike anything else you’re likely to read. Apparently it was originally a screenplay, and you can see that in the dialogue, the visual scenes, the rollicking narrative thrust, but there’s also the novelist’s preoccupation with a deeply imagined inner world.

If you could have a drink with any living author, who would it be?

Since we’re talking about Rudolph Wurlitzer, I don’t think you could go wrong choosing him as a drinking companion. He’s had amazing travel experiences, and he’s known some of the most interesting artistic figures of our time, so, aside from literary shop-talk, I’d love to just hear whatever anecdotes he’d be willing to share. A good reason to keep topping off his glass.

What are you working on now? What’s next?

I’m working on two short stories right now, which isn’t easy for me since I tend to fixate on one project at a time and have never been much good at dividing my creative energies. To make matters worse, I’ve started a novel that’s turned out to be very research-intensive, so these days I’m knee deep in books.

Our thanks to Tenhoff for taking the time to answer a few questions and share his work. Read his story, “Ichiban,”  here:


S. P. Tenhoff’s writing has appeared in ConjunctionsThe Antioch ReviewAmerican Short FictionThe Southern ReviewThe Gettysburg Review, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of Columbia University’s Bennett Cerf Memorial Prize for fiction, and is a recent finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize, the Calvino Prize, and the Autumn House Fiction Prize, among other awards.