Contributor Spotlight: Sean Bernard

Referential” a short story by Sean Bernard, appeared in Issue 19 and can be read here.

We’d love to hear more about “Referential.”

Sorry to go on long here, but “Referential” is one of my favorite stories, and for a few reasons I’ll get into below (is that okay to say? is it too vain I love one of my stories? So it goes, I guess). The story was first inspired by the great Diane Williams: I was reading her book Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, and I wanted to try a story in the same vein: brief, strange, elliptical, a little domesticky. So the first section of “Referential,” done basically in one shot. I have no idea how or why I decided to have Hemingway show up and try to repair a faucet leak, but once that happened, I felt inspired to keep going: more authors, more domestic situations with the couple, and then I just started scaling it up, up, and up, until those fairly outlandish final sections. I think I finished the first draft – which is probably about 85% preserved in the final – within a week. Basically, the fun fluidity of writing the story it a huge reason I like the story so much.

Another reason: since I finished “Referential,” I’ve built out an entire collection featuring the same couple, and the stories and tones of the other stories in the collection have, I think or at least hope, the same realistic magic that is found in “Referential,” and also the same cheerful sorrow. (The current title of that novel-in-stories was pick-pocketed from Kurt Vonnegut, who has a cameo in this story.)

What was the most difficult part of this story?

There’s a section in which Kevin, the boyfriend, really wants Vladimir Nabokov to appear in his life, the way all these other authors are appearing in the couple’s life. Not letting Kevin have what he wanted – that was the hardest part.

(It wasn’t hard.)

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

I recently read Sara Majka’s debut, Cities I’ve Never Lived In (Graywolf, 2016). It’s astonishingly gorgeous, quietly strange, ruminative, detailed. Many of the best parts of Peter Orner and Lucia Berlin, and more.

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

The poet Vieve Kaplan, who happens to also be the woman to whom I’m married. I’m serious about this: I’m a little shy around strangers, and of the people I know in life, I like talking with my wife the best.

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

I mentioned the novel-in-stories; beyond that, I’ve been working in fits and starts on a project that marries together telescopes and observatories, notions of seeing and unseeing (e.g. into space, e.g. race), contemporary social issues (immigration, driverless cars), and the relationship between power and writing. It’s a bit loose right now, but the project holds a bit of excitement, and I think I can see it with a fair bit of shape. Check back in three years!

Our thanks to Sean for taking the time to answer a few questions and share his work. Read Sean’s story, “Referential,” here:


Sean Bernard’s first novel, Studies in the Hereafter, was published by Red Hen Press in 2015, and his story collection Desert sonorous won the 2014 Juniper Prize. A recipient of an NEA grant, Sean teaches in and directs the creative writing program at the University of La Verne, where he also edits the journal Prism Review