Your debut fiction collection, Collateral Damage: 48 Stories, was published this past October and awarded the publisher’s annual fiction prize for 2022. Tell us about the collection.
The title of the collection makes it sound like a tome, but most of the 48 stories in this slim 138-page book are flash fiction – stories of no more than 1,000 words (around four pages). Many are an even shorter subset of flash called micro fiction, at 400 words or fewer. Two stories are a single sentence; several are less than 100 words. All were previously published in magazines and literary journals, some as early as 1996; many were prizewinners in the publications that originally published them. Two were selected for and reprinted in the Best Small Fictions anthologies of 2016 and 2022.
I wrote and published stories during most of the 33 years I practiced law at Davis Polk. I wrote late at night or in the wee hours, and took vacations at weeklong writing bootcamps, often returning to the office more exhausted than when I left. After I retired from the law, I began putting together a collection and submitted it to an annual fiction contest sponsored by Snake Nation Press in Valdosta, Georgia.
In May 2022, two and a half years after I submitted the manuscript, I received a call from Roberta George, the poet and novelist who founded Snake Nation over 30 years ago. Roberta said she was going through the contest submissions from the prior two years and found mine at the bottom of what she apologized for calling “the slush pile.” She said she was drawn in by the first story, 100 words long and told from the perspective of a fly. “We get plenty of flies down here in Georgia,” she said, immediately establishing a point of commonality between her world and mine. Snake Nation allowed me to revise the book to include several newer stories and awarded the book its 2022 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for Fiction.
The book is divided into Part I “Collateral Damage” and Part II “In the Repair Shop.” The protagonists are children, mothers and fathers, couples, a grandfather with a secret, and two most unusual narrators: a fish and a wineglass. While many of the stories are set in familiar New York locales – the subway, the Bowery, the Met Opera, even Queens Boulevard – two stories take place in France, another on a Caribbean island. There’s humor (one of the funniest pieces, “In Memory of Maisie,” is set at a funeral) as well as darker stories, particularly in Part I. In “No Offense,” an ex-prisoner is terrified of losing her first job after her release from Bedford Hills; “Reading, Writing and Arithmetic” is about a young victim of abuse whose teachers just don’t get it. The stories in Part II offer hope or redemption at the end; it may be fleeting but it’s there.
Do you have any pieces currently in the works that you can share with us?
Yes, there are several that I am either working on or have begun to submit.
A new collection, In the Shadow of the Law
, includes mostly full-length stories (3,000 to 8,000 words); each involves the law in some way. Some of the protagonists are lawyers; others are children or young adults caught up in the legal process.
Some Things Happen Twice
is a slim volume of essays and flash fictions; people in the essays (nonfiction) become characters (fictionalized, of course) in the flash stories.
Two longer works are historical fiction – one published in December 2022 and one only recently completed.
“The Loneliness Cure” was awarded the Best Spiritual Literature Prize for Fiction by Orison Books and appears in Orison’s Best Spiritual Literature: Vol. 7, 2022
. It’s based on the life of Hannah Rochel Verbermacher, a young Jewish woman in Ukraine in the early 1800s who became a Hasidic rebbe. The story is narrated by Hannah’s best friend, Tirzah, a purely fictional creation.
Another work, a novella (modeled, in its form, after Sandra Cisneros’s classic The House on Mango Street
) is entitled Sarra Copia: A Locked-In Life
. Sarra Copia grew up in the early 1600s confined to the Jewish ghetto in Venice, where in her twenties she convened a literary salon attended regularly by Christian clerics. The novella reimagines her relationship with her father and her sister Diana (reduced to a mere sentence in the history books) and her strong but troubled connections with the Christian world outside the ghetto.
Finally, I’m working on a long story about Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. Eleanor was a brilliant and fascinating person in her own right.
How have your legal training and career influenced your fiction?
In litigation, your first job is to learn everything you can about the facts and the law. After that, you distill a case to its essence, telling a story so that the conclusion you want for your client will appear inevitable – to a judge or a jury, an arbitrator, your adversary. Similarly, flash fiction requires compression: telling a complex story in a page or two, knowing what to leave out, and crafting the ending that’s right for the story. It differs from litigation in that the ending you seek in any short fiction should, at its best, be both inevitable and surprising – not the effect you necessarily want in your advocacy.
Research, revision, deadlines, page and word limits – all these demands on a litigator apply to writing short fiction as well.
I’ve occasionally drawn on my legal experience for subject matter, particularly my pro bono work representing or counseling prisoners, victims of sex trafficking or domestic violence, illegal immigrants and disabled individuals. “Matchbox,” published and awarded a prize by Masters Review
, is based in part on my visits with prisoners at Bedford Hills as well as a New York Times
article about DNA research on identical twins, which I was drawn to by my work as co-counsel to the New York State Justice Task Force. “A Simple Case,” which won Carve Magazine
’s annual fiction prize, is narrated by a court reporter and is loosely based on a personal injury case I learned about while serving as counsel to the New York State Chief Judge, as well as hundreds of depositions where I observed court reporters at their best. These two full-length stories can be read on my website, nancyludmerer.com
, which also has links to purchase Collateral Damage: 48 Stories
Was mentoring important to your career at Davis Polk, either being mentored by senior lawyers or acting as a mentor to others?
When I arrived at Davis Polk in the summer of 1982, there was no formal mentoring program. A stand-in, perhaps, was the camaraderie among women lawyers, the sharing of experience, questions, and concerns. In particular, Miriam Cedarbaum and Ahuva Genack shared their advice and experience. Meanwhile, the training I received from more senior lawyers on my cases – Guy Struve, Jimmy Benkard, Scott Wise and Dennis Glazer, to name a few – was excellent.
Later, as a seasoned lawyer, I loved mentoring young lawyers, sometimes as a natural extension of their work on cases but also when they simply wanted advice, whether about a legal issue, an ethical dilemma or something more mundane. A number of them have gone on to become counsel, partners and judges.
I cannot speak about mentoring at Davis Polk without including the non-lawyers I mentored: legal assistants, staff, pro bono clients and high school students. Through Davis Polk’s participation in the New York City High School Mentoring Program, I mentored six high school students, assisting them with their classwork, college choices and other issues, introducing them to New York’s cultural offerings, and staying in touch with them well past graduation.
I was deeply honored when my mentee Adama Bah included me in the acknowledgements of her book for young readers, Accused: My Story of Injustice
(Norton Young Readers, 2021): “I’ve saved the best for last: Nancy Ludmerer at Davis Polk and Wardwell LLP. I was able to finish high school because of this fantastic woman! She was my mentor and connected me with exceptional attorneys who eventually won me my asylum case.” I am grateful to Adama for her kind words and to Davis Polk for its support of the mentoring program and my pro bono work.
Mentoring remains as significant to me now as it was at Davis Polk. In my writing groups, I mentor other writers and rejoice when their work is published. I’ve taught a few workshops in writing and publishing flash fiction, both to high school students and to adults, and plan to do more. Finally, I’ve received wonderful mentoring from established writers throughout my writing career, most recently from Karen Bender on my longer-form writing and from Alice Kaltman on what to do when your book is accepted for publication.
What advice would you give to lawyers who would like to balance a passion for the arts with a legal career?
My model for lawyers pursuing their artistic passions is a former Davis Polk corporate lawyer, Stephen Cho, now an Executive Director at Morgan Stanley. Stephen is a wonderful cellist. In 2006, while an associate at Davis Polk, he founded Camerata Notturna, an astonishingly good chamber orchestra. There are some professional musicians who perform with Camerata Notturna, but many are doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, company executives, or just plain folk. Many attended top music schools (Stephen went to Juilliard) but ended up pursuing other careers. Camerata Notturna musicians play with a joy and verve often lacking in performances by renowned orchestras. Pursuing artistic endeavors can make you a better and happier lawyer, a more interesting colleague, and a more resilient and sensitive human being. It can also lead to an immensely satisfying second career.