Editor Interview: The Mississippi Review Prize
Q: Describe what you publish in 25 characters or less.
A: brainmelting literariness
Q: What other current publications (or publishers) do you admire most?
A: Zoetrope, n+1, The Paris Review, Jacobin, Harvard Review, Harper's, McSweeney's, Kenyon Review, Tin House, Southern Review--too many to name!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Q: What is the best advice you can give people who are considering submitting work to your publication?
A: I think we've all had the experience of finishing a piece of writing and feeling 100% certain we are a genius, only to encounter it a few weeks or months later and realize we were 100% mistaken. Not that we aren't brilliant but perhaps that first draft we are only brilliant-in-chrysalis. So as tempting as it is I'd let the genius-draft sit a little while and come back to it and patiently work it over. When you've done that--composed a thoughtful and well-crafted literary work that is aware of its own mortality--that's the time to submit. That humility and thoughtful forbearance comes across to readers, believe me.
Q: Describe the ideal submission.
A: One that makes sustained, near-tantric love to my heart and brain.
Q: What do submitters most often get wrong about your submissions process?
A: We produce two issues a year, one being the contest issue and the other being an issue of solicited work. We do this in part because it's the tradition that the great Frederick Barthelme established and made work so well for Mississippi Review, and in part because we are a very small staff of three. I'd say the biggest misconception [part A] is that we don't take unsolicited work. We do, but only for the contest issue. Biggest misconception [part B] is that we only publish writing about the south and Mississippi in particular, which isn't the case. I love place-specific magazines like Oxford American and Midwestern Gothic--both truly awesome--but that's not our thing. In MR a piece can take place in Mississippi or on the moon, so long as its aspiring to access its deepest narrative, to make its meaning in an interesting and literary way, to take itself and the reader seriously, to outlast its moment, to be art.
Q: How much do you want to know about the person submitting to you?
A: I love cover letters. I think it's always fascinating and helpful to know a little bit about the person whose been brave enough to compose a piece and kind enough to send it our way. I should clarify: I love them insofar as they eschew Tolstoyan length and elaboration. I don't need a status update from every minute of your life on earth, but it's cool to know where you're from and a little bit about your work and where it's appeared and any honors you've received. That should not, however, be a deterrent to anyone who hasn't yet published or received awards for his/her writing. We love discovering new writers.
Q: If you publish writing, how much of a piece do you read before making the decision to reject it?
A: I generally have to read until the end. Every once in a while there's a piece that's just transparently not ready for public consumption or written by a visitor from a distant solar system which is fairly easy to give up on guilt free, but that's pretty rare. One of the things about having so many writing programs out there today is that there are a lot of writers who know how to write competent stories, poems, and essays. I think this is a good thing--for American literature and the country as a whole--even though that doesn't mean the same number of people who know how to write a competent piece are going to set your hair on fire with the sheer awesomeness of their literary skill. But it raises the overall quality of the submission we receive because today so many people understand the mechanics and bedrock elements of their chosen genre. When I took over as editor-in-chief last year, my goal was to make sure that each piece submitted to the annual MR contest was read at least twice. So far in the two contests I've presided over each piece has been read at least three and usually four times, which I think is a good and necessary thing.
Q: What is a day in the life of an editor like for you?
A: Usually I wake up late and start the day off with a massage before meeting up with a prospective contributor for a two-martini lunch and then.... Oh wait, I slipped back into fiction mode again. Hmm. Let's see. I guess a typical day as editor of MR is incredibly busy because I'm also a writer and a teacher, so I have to find the hours in a day to do all three. If I fail to do this, I become an absolute monster. While this occasionally makes for moments of extreme anxiety, for the most part it's really wonderful to be engaged in three roles--writer, teacher, and editor--that are connected to writing and yet all autonomously discrete in their demands, pleasures, and shades of meaningfulness. There is a lot I've had to learn since taking over as editor. I'd been a fiction editor before at another journal, but when you're responsible for the whole magazine there's a big nasty nest of un-sexy things that need to happen to make the entire operation function. I'll not detail them here, but I spend some of my time doing those sorts of things, but I also get to spend time finding writers I want to publish and communicating with them about their work, as well as meeting up with my wonderfully talented associate editors, Elena Tomorowitz and Allison Campbell, to work on the layout and design of up-coming issues.
Q: How important do you feel it is for publishers to embrace modern technologies?
A: I think it's important, but also at times challenging. There's a pain-in-the-ass factor of keeping up with a technology that is constantly revolutionizing itself quicker than at any time in human history, all of which sometimes makes me feel like an old man, hose in hand, shouting, "Stay off of my lawn" at the kids in the neighborhood. I'm mostly referring here to whatever social media thingy is ruling the day, but only for a day. There are other modes of technology that last longer than a tic tac which feel like gifts from a benevolent mad scientist. This website for one. But I'm also thinking here of something like online submissions systems, which we've just made the switch to. While there's a slight nostalgia for the piles of manila envelopes stacked like bullion inside our tiny MR office, it's WAY better and easier to handle reading this way, to say nothing of the environmental sense it makes.