Profile: Mitchell Sommers, Fiction Editor

When he’s not practicing consumer bankruptcy law in Lancaster, PA, Mitchell Sommers is busy at work writing short stories, novels, and op-eds. If that’s not enough, he is also the Fiction Editor here at Philadelphia Stories and a member of the board of directors. With the recent ten-year anniversary of the magazine, we thought it would be interesting to hear about Mitchell’s experiences so far, as well as, his insight on fiction writing.

1.        When did you first become involved with Philadelphia Stories?

My first involvement with Philadelphia Stories began when I submitted a story to them, called “The Marshak,” based on my time representing parents in the Lancaster County court system who had their kids taken from them by Children and Youth. I later found out that Carla loved it, but she was outvoted.  (Not to worry. It did find a home with my college alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College’s literary magazine.

Four years later, I submitted another story, called “Bando,” which dealt with mortgage foreclosures at the start of the housing crash. This time they published it. Shortly after, I was asked to join the fiction board and the board of directors. I remember rumbles of the sort, “We really could use a lawyer around here.” And so it went.

2.        Would you say that there is any particular style or type of writing that tends to get published?

I hate to do the “we want strong writing” dodge, but that’s kind of true. Our two Pushcart Nominees for 2013 were stories that didn’t have a conventional narrative structure, “One out of Ten Fish are Afraid of Water,” by Che Yuen, and “Einstein’s iPod,” by Stephen Graf. But one of my favorite stories this year has been “The Worm of the Heart,” by Ilene Rush, which was conventionally structured. So, we’re back to “write strong stuff.” Yeah, I know. Totally unhelpful.

3.     What role do you believe Philadelphia Stories plays in the local arts community?

We bring writers and readers together, not just through our publication, but through events such as the Push to Publish conference. And the work we do goes out, not just in the Delaware Valley, but all over the East Coast.

Here’s an example. I was recently at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, working on a second draft of my novel at a Starbucks (yes, the cliché is noted) when I overheard two people talking about writing-related things. I introduced myself and the one person said she’d submitted to us, and that a friend of hers had a novel excerpt published by us this year, that being “Holy Day” by Anne Colwell.

4.     Did your passion for writing begin before or during your career as a lawyer? And what affect, if any, does your career have on your writing?

I always loved to write. I constantly wrote as a kid. When I went to Dickinson School of Law, they, like most law schools, carefully looked for any trace of creativity in my writing and proceeded to beat it the hell out of me.  From graduation to the mid ‘90s, my writing consisted of things that contained the words “Plaintiff” and “Defendant.”

Eventually, I spent a few years at a writer’s workshop in Lancaster County. From there, I got my MFA in the low-res program at University of New Orleans.

As to the effect on my writing, obviously the work I do gives me stories to tell. But I think the more interesting thing has been the effect that writing creatively has had on my legal writing. I’m more conscious of building a narrative structure in letters and in legal pleadings. Advocacy after all is telling a story.

5.     Do you prefer to work in any specific genre?

I’m all over the place. I say that my home is literary fiction, but I’ve had things published in the creative non-fiction category. I’ve also dabbled in playwriting. I used to be active in a playwriting group although it’s been a few years since I’ve been active.  I also used to be a regular op-ed contributor for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I currently contribute op-eds for the Lancaster newspapers.

6.     Who are some of your literary heroes?

I have to give a shout out to two of my professors at University of New Orleans, Joseph and Amanda Boyden. They are amazing people, amazing writers, and amazing teachers. Joseph Boyden isn’t that well known in the U.S., but in his native Canada, he’s very renowned.

I’ve also always loved Michael Chabon. Ditto Dave Eggers. I kind of swiped my structure for the novel I submitted as my MFA thesis from “The Wonder Boys.” There. I busted myself.

7.     Are you currently working on any projects?

I have one novel in the pipeline for PS Books. I am also working on a historical fiction novel. And there’s always all those short stories in need of revision…