Monthly Archives: July 2015


Bag It: Why the Publishing Industry Should Take Notes from Chipotle

While eating lunch this past winter, I had a literary epiphany. It was a frigid day amongst the blur of countless, unidentifiable frigid days within the haunted snow globe that is Minnesota. I was conducting my gluttonous, bi-monthly routine of wolfing down a Chipotle burrito in ravenous, too-large bites. After gnashing through the first quarter of the burrito, I groped for my cup to swill down some soda. It was then that I noticed the words on the cup. The words weren’t your typical marketing jargon—See you next time! Let us know how we treated you by filling out this survey! No, on my cup there were small-print words framed by an agrarian motif and a large-print name that I recognized: Malcolm Gladwell. What was the New York Times bestselling author doing on my cup? Was he going to recommend that I needed to ingest 10,000 Chipotle burritos in order to became a burrito-eating expert? Struck with curiosity, I read the first sentence.

“I grew up in Canada, in an area of Ontario where there is a large community of Old-Order Mennonites.”

Cup222A delightful, 359-word piece followed, recounting an experience in Gladwell’s youth when unfamiliar cultures joined to raise a barn after a local farmer lost his in a fire. Completely engrossed, I stepped away from my half-eaten lunch, journeyed up to the counter, and inquired from the wide-grinned teenaged employee at the register about the cup. She handed me a brown paper bag, which, like the cup, featured narrative writing and cartoonish sketches. One side depicted modern humans drinking coffee, walking kids to school, shopping; the other side featured litters of anthropomorphic astronauts, robots, and tech-savvy future humans frolicking on the brown paper bag. Like the cup, the bag’s writing also belonged to a literary giant, George Saunders. I took the bag back to my table and as I finished my lunch, I read the story. It was a sparse yet undeniably charming letter to a future-residing reader. These short blurbs scrawled on the sides of otherwise-ignored products were a beacon of literary promise. Cue my epiphany.

For today’s writer, preserving optimism in a largely non-paying, literary landscape is an arduous, though necessary, endeavor. Positivity—synthetic or otherwise—is an essential component for a writer to combat the bubbling neuroses that accompany the artistic medium. Whether inching away on a novel or constructing short stories, there isn’t much reassurance awaiting the writer on the other end of the submission structure, only long lulls of unresponsive silence intercut with manic periods of self-loathing and excessive refreshing of one’s email inbox. But what else is a writer to do?

When seeking to publish their work, most writers follow a step-by-step process that has been developed and passed down by writers before them. The process is a logical structure that has proven successful for predecessors, and for better or worse hasn’t been updated. In the first step, you, the writer, set yourself at a desk and you write. When you think you’re done writing, you brew another pot of coffee, or, if the time is appropriate, you mix up an alcoholic beverage, and keep writing. Then you step away from the desk, go for a walk or seek human communication, before returning to revise your work. Only then, when the words you have punched out are in their least-terrible state, you scroll through your Microsoft Excel file of literary publishers. You figure out which Review or Quarterly or Journal publishes the type of work you just wrote and then you draft a cover letter. You flatter the editors of the publication by name-dropping a writer or two that they have published that you “admire” and send the letter and its accompanying story off into the daunting literary ether. Then you wait. You prepare for a robotic rejection letter—While we enjoyed your writing, this piece isn’t for us at this time— though you quietly expect an acceptance letter. And maybe one will say yes and you will dance around your desk like a celebratory buffoon and when the piece is published you’ll adore seeing your name printed below your piece and you won’t mind that you weren’t paid and you will tell yourself that a few more non-paying publications might lead to one that, you know, actually pays. Or maybe all the journals say no, and you strap back into to revision mode and identify what is wrong with you piece.

But what if there is a road less traveled in the publishing world, a meander from the traditional structure? What if the today’s writer should be exploring non-traditional publishing avenues, like the Chipotle cup?

Saunders and Gladwell’s Chipotle contributions are part of their Cultivating Thought Author Series. Chipotle’s website states that the goal of the series is to:

“Allow people to connect with the musings of these writers with whom they may or may not be familiar and create a moment of analog pause in a digital world, provoking introspection or inspiration, and maybe a little laughter.” (1)

Though only a year into its infancy, the Cultivating Thought Author Series boasts an impressive fleet of writers. It includes literary juggernauts Sheri Fink, Michael Lewis, Amy Tan, Walter Isaacson, and well-known comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Judd Apatow, and countless other talented folks. Such an impressive roster begs the question: Is it to the writers’ greater advantage to publish with Chipotle than to publish at a nationally-distributed magazine? Does it pay more? Would a story published on a cup at Chipotle be seen by more readers if it were published with the New Yorker?

Publishing an issue once a week, the New Yorker currently boasts a circulation of just over a million loyal readers. When you account for newsstand purchases, each issue is seen by about 1.1 million readers.(2) In contrast, in a 2011 article by Fortune (3), Chipotle reportedly serves 800,000 customers per day. That’s 5.6 million customers per week. Of course, not each customer is going to order a soda cup, or a to-go bag, and therefore not each of the 5.6 million will read the Cultivating Thought Author Series. However, unlike the New Yorker, a Cultivating Thought piece may stay in circulation for months, as opposed to a singular week. Increasing exposure, each Cultivating Thought Series piece is published online. I reached out to the Chipotle corporate offices to inquire into about the Series and its circulation to attempt and pin down precisely how many readers were observing the work of their contributors. Unfortunately, I received little response as their supply-chain data is proprietary. They did, however, confirm that all the contributors were compensated.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether more people read Gladwell’s piece on the paper confines of their soda cup than a bound New Yorker magazine. What is pertinent is that the Cultivating Thought Author Series should open the eyes of writers to far-reaching alternative destinations for publishing their work. Does that mean that writers should submit their next essay to Subway instead of McSweeney’s or the Georgia Review? Not necessarily. Chipotle’s groundbreaking series isn’t open to submission, publishing only solicited work. But it does afford a certain set of writers the chance to engage the same creativity they apply in their work in considering publishing venues. Hypothetically, they could approach a local sandwich shop about publishing blurbs on their napkins or they could pitch their flash fiction to minor-league sports teams in their area to feature narrative work on banner-scroll pen promotion nights.

The pursuit of non-traditional publishing avenues is not limited to writers. Imagine all the fantastic deviations independent publishers could implement by exploring outside-the-box publishing strategies. An independent publisher could partner with a coffee shop. Imagine the increase in submissions an online literary journal would receive for this call for submissions:

The Blank Blank Review is seeking work for an exciting new publishing                                  endeavor. In partnership with Fat Moose Gourmet Coffee, we are hosting a contest whose winner will see their work printed on Fat Moose’s signature eco-friendly cup sleeves! The theme for the contest is “Unquenchable Thirst.”

All work should be limited to 400 words. Compensation for the contest winner will be five contributor sleeves.

Writing conference attendees would surely stop and talk to the editors of the Blank Blank Review upon seeing their booth arrayed with beautiful cups emblazoned with narrative tales. The popularity of the cups would put in the motion the idea that the What What Quarterly should host their own contest. Maybe instead of cups, the What What Quarterly, in partnership with the Titus Tissue Company, will post on their website that they are seeking work to be printed on for a box of tissues, the theme being First World Problems. It’s mutually beneficial, providing unique attention for the literary journal—also potentially generating income—and it gives the partner advertising and a boost in public relations.

As book sales continue to dip and newspapers and magazines shutter their print operations, it’s natural for writers and independent publishers to become discouraged. But they shouldn’t allow themselves to sink beneath the pessimism into anguish. Instead they should seek encouragement in the opportunities embodied by Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought Author Series. The market is ripe for new-wave publishing exploration. After all, much like submitting work to a literary publication, the worse response a writer can receive from a non-traditional publisher is a harmless: ‘No, thank you for your submission.’

displaypicturePaul Thelen lives in Minneapolis, where he is an MFA candidate at Hamline University. He enjoys coffee and beer, but struggles to identify the appropriate timing for each. He tweets @ThePaulLen and his other work can be located through his website

Welcome to Front Porch Commons! A Note from the Editor

On behalf of CLMP, I am thrilled to announce the launch of Front Porch Commons, independent publishing’s new front porch!

Front Porch Commons is a virtual space for conversation within and about the independent literary publishing community. Indie publishing has long been a house of many rooms; I hope Front Porch Commons can be the place where our diverse community comes together to talk. Through weekly blog posts and short essays, we’re creating an ongoing discussion of the ideas and issues that matter most to our industry.

Who’s writing these posts? You! All who are a part of our community–from publishers, booksellers, agents, and librarians, to educators, historians, readers, and writers–are invited contribute. In the true spirit of a commons, we’ll be publishing all submissions we receive (so long as they are previously unpublished, on-topic, and not attack pieces).

The conversation is already starting. Check out an interview with the ever-hilarious Sue Shapiro on the pros of publishing small, a discussion with poetry icon Deborah Landau, a literary podcast roundup with new recommendations even for the veterate podcast listener, one author’s take on Chipotle’s package publishing model, and firsthand advice about starting and running literary magazines, among other great features.

This terrific mix of pieces reflects the spectrum of work that Front Porch Commons will continue to run: everything from logistical and advice-oriented essays for fellow members of the community, to thought pieces about the industry, to profiles and interviews with some of its stars, and all manner of work in between.

So, please, read! Stay a while! Add your voice! We’ll look forward to seeing you on the Porch!

All my best,

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, Front Porch Commons Editor


Can You Run a Literary Magazine Long Distance? Bridging the Gaps at Two Cities Review

Two_Cities_Issue_6_09-2The idea sprouted when I was about to leave New York. I’d been living with my high school friend and fellow writer Olivia in Brooklyn, finishing my MFA and pretty much living a writer’s dream. We both loved the most writerly city on earth. We loved the plays and poetry readings, the artisanal doughnuts and dark bars crammed with storytellers. Over the few years of our roommate-ship, we’d played with the idea of founding a literary magazine. We had always wanted to shape the vision of a journal of our own. But then I was due to move back to my hometown of Boston. How could we possibly maintain and fund a new journal when spread across the East Coast? Was it possible, in today’s wired world, to make a journal with a cohesive vision, when its co-editors would only meet in person a handful of times a year?

We decided that not only was it possible; it would be what made us unique.

Two Cities’ title and entire governing vision sprang from the familiarity both of us had with multiple cities. So many of us out there were leading multi-city experiences, we realized. Here on the East Coast, all our writer friends were in the same boat, shuttling back and forth up that Northeast corridor in Bolt Buses or terrifying Chinatown buses or throwing out an occasional arm and a leg for the train. We knew the commute; so much of our lives had been defined by that long journey. We’d had long-distance relationships stretched across that coast; we’d gone to college in one city and then hurried back home for holidays. This was what modern life felt like for us: being stretched, walking tightropes between different regions of our lives.

Once we figured out that our biggest liability would make us who we were, we ran with the idea. We used the idea of “bridging gaps” as a guideline for the kinds of work we published. We looked for stories and poems that gave us the experience of urban life, but that also crossed genres, boundaries, or realities in new and exciting ways. In our first issue, we published a collaboration between an artist and a poet, a team who integrated their work together much like William Blake’s etchings. We published stories with surprise endings and poems that blended nature and the city, or high and low concerns. The unfamiliar juxtaposition was all.

Using the convenient tools of technology helped us bridge the gaps behind the scenes. Olivia and I schedule weekly Skype meetings; we collaborate and make notes to each other using Submittable; we email back and forth with thoughts. We used a Kickstarter campaign to launch our magazine, and then held parallel (but not simultaneous) launch parties in both New York and Boston. Having a two-pronged headquarters has opened up the accessibility of our magazine as well; with our double reach, we’ve received submissions from the old Brooklyn enclaves, but also have dug up Boston writers too. And we’re open to writing that comes from anywhere and is about pretty much anything. Having more than one center of operations gives submitters a little more openness and accessibility. The magazine is not just for that elite huddled group in New York; it’s open to city-dwellers (or rural writers, for that matter) everywhere.

As the publication continues to grow, the center of its focus continues to change as well. A job change had me moving to Chicago, another great literary city, but because of the way we’ve set up the magazine, we’re not rooted to one spot; it’s easy just to pack up the bandwagon and roll on. Our magazine reflects the strange rootlessness that today’s generation of writers feel; either that, or we experience a double- and triple-rootedness, a connection to a dozen new homes. Our magazine can address the double-identities that immigrants or bi-racial people feel, or it can speak to the weary life of the commuter. Life in our stories always seems to be happening when people are struggling to bridge the gap between their dreams and their realities, or between their present and their past, or their home and their journey outward and away.

Running a long-distance magazine can feel like a long-distance relationship. It’s important to establish rituals and routines, with our regular meetings, our established items on the agenda, and so on. But it’s also important to leave time for brainstorming and wool-gathering. That work is often done when we are out of touch with another, but when we re-connect, we pull out the notes and excitedly share what we’ve come up with. Like a relationship, we need time alone and time together. But it’s always with excitement that we re-connect across the miles and see what’s showed up in the inbox for the next issue.



Two Cities Review is an online review featuring quality fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Blair Hurley (Chicago Editor) is a writer and instructor of Creative Writing. She has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Princeton University and an M.F.A. in Fiction from NYU. She currently teaches creative writing at Loyola University.
Blair’s writing has been published or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blustem, Descant, Quality Women’s Fiction, The Best Young Writers and Artists in America, The Armchair Aesthete, The Red Rock Review, The Allegheny Review, and elsewhere. Blair is also the writer of the award-winning weblog Writerly Life.
Blair lives in Chicago.
Sue Shapiro at 20 in the Village, where What's Never Said is set

What’s Never Said and the Small Press: An Interview with Susan Shapiro

In her novel What’s Never Said, upcoming from the independent New York-based press Heliotrope, veteran author and teacher Susan Shapiro shares a story of obsessive love between a student and her professor. The book zips back and forth from the 80s to 2010, moving between his and her (often clashing) perspectives. Shapiro herself is someone who’s seen the writing world from many angles; we were thrilled to hear her thoughts on working with both large publishers and a local, smaller house, and on self-reinvention.

Sarah Herrington: You’re a New York Times bestselling author with major publishers for the last 12 years. So why give your new novel What’s Never Said to the Greenwich Village-based indie press Heliotrope?

Susan Shapiro: I was overjoyed to publish six books with top houses: Random House, St. Martins and Penguin. But I found they care a lot about sales and unfortunately my last novel sold about 5 copies. So that doesn’t make my next work of fiction very desirable.

A few big editors told me they admired What’s Never Said but after having it for months, they seemed ambivalent or suggested major changes such as getting rid of the poets, shrinks and Manhattan, which apparently doesn’t “play in Peoria.” But that was 90% of the book. Editors at a Jewish publisher liked the manuscript—it’s my most Jewish book, with an Israeli character. Yet the heroine doesn’t end up married to a Jew—apparently a big shanda. (“Shame” in Yiddish.) So I had to rethink whether I wanted the book to say something more important about my heritage. But truthfully, my religion is confessional poetry.

Herrington: I love that.

Shapiro: Another editor my age liked the older Lila better and thought I should revise the whole book that way. But I already did three memoirs in my 40s with a more seasoned voice (Five Men Who Broke My Heart, Lighting Up, and Only As Good as Your Word). So I kind of loved being twenty again through my character.

Sue Shapiro at 20 in the Village, where What's Never Said is set
Sue Shapiro at 20 in the Village, where What’s Never Said is set

An editor I admire who’d read my last coauthored memoir, The Bosnia List, suggested I switch back and forth between 1980 and 2010 every single chapter, the way I did in Bosnia List. But that would have required a total revision. And nobody was saying, “We’ll pay you now and help you revise it.” They were sort of saying, “Spend another year ruining something that already works for the slight chance we might then decide to say yes.”

Meanwhile my long time writing group—who I completely trust—was telling me it was my best book. I was depressed, trying to figure out what to do at the end of March when I learned that Naomi Rosenblatt at Heliotrope had just started taking fiction. I’d met her two years ago when she published my student Royal Young’s great memoir Fame Shark and she also did my colleague Kate Walter’s funny new memoir Looking for a Kiss. I really liked Naomi, thought she was a very cool Greenwich Village hippie chick, like me, around the same age.

When I mentioned my novel, she said she’d read it right away. Within a week she told me she loved it and wanted it exactly way it was. She’d had a flirtation with a professor in college, too. She totally got what I was trying to do and had very few changes. I was ecstatic.

The downside: she could hardly offer any money upfront. I spoke to my shrink about how demoralizing it was that none of the other editors would match the advances I’d had in the past, debating whether I should go with the great Heliotrope editor who got the book the best, but for little remuneration upfront. He asked me, “What would make you happy about this?“  My last two books were just paperbacks. Five years ago I was jealous that my cousin Molly Jong-Fast’s novel had a gorgeous purple cover. So I told him, “If it came out in hardcover, really fast, in August—when I don’t have to teach—with a purple cover.” I told Naomi and she said, “Done.”

Herrington: With the purple cover and everything?

Shapiro: Yes! That’s what’s so fantastic about indie publishing. You have more of a say and don’t have to follow the really long slow schedule and wait 18 months for your book to see print. Also I’m not known to play well with others. In high school I was voted “Least likely to join a cult, most likely to start one.” When I started teaching at The New School, I told them “I’ll give my students my heart and soul. But don’t make me do meetings.” In 23 years they never have.

WNS_latestCover authphotojpg

With Heliotrope, there’s no committee to placate, as there is with major publishers. It’s mostly just Naomi. She gets to say yes or no. And the royalties are much better for writers. I get 50%. Some of her authors have actually made more money that way then by getting big advances upfront.

Herrington: I love how Heliotrope is a Greenwich Village-based press and most of the story is set in the Village. How did this story start for you?

Shapiro: In my first memoir, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which came out 2003, I spilled all the secrets of my former flames. But there was one story I could never tell—until now. I had to fictionalize. A mentor once told me I wrote best about sex and people I loved. I kind of always had this story of falling for my professor—which I did—in the back of my mind. Then one day 5 years ago I saw him at a literary party. And he didn’t remember me. I flipped out. On the way home, I tearfully relayed what happened to my husband Charlie, who’d been at the event with me. When I told him what happened, Charlie laughed and said the professor knew exactly who I was. The guy had been staring at him—and us together – the whole night.

I wondered if he did know who I was. If so, I was thrilled. Because if he was still pissed off at me—thirty years later—that meant he did really care about me, too. So that was the initial spark. I came home and wrote about what happened and how mortified I felt and showed it to my writing group. To quote one of the members, “You should have gotten old and bitter a long time ago, because this rocks.”

Herrington: So why write it from both Daniel and Lila’s points of view?

Shapiro: In my 33-year career, I’ve had to reinvent myself every 5 years to keep making a living, reinvigorate and shake things up. After my last novel tanked, instead of giving up on books like a normal person would have, I wound up publishing two coauthored nonfiction projects. Unhooked was a substance abuse book I wrote with my brilliant addiction specialist Fred Woolverton. The Bosnia List was a memoir I did with my Bosnian physical therapist, Kenan, who survived the Yugoslavian war.

I love first person writing, that’s always been my favorite. So I coauthored both books in the first person in their voices. That meant I spent several years and 600 pages in a man’s head. When it came to writing What’s Never Said I tried the male’s voice and liked it. I’ve always been enthralled by Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, so I had that kind of a neurotic smart Jewish male hero in my head. I’d also never published a book in third person, so I tried. They say, “You can do anything as long as it works,” and it seemed to.

Herrington: After so many acclaimed memoirs, why a novel?

Shapiro: I like the idea of a memoirist writing fiction about poetry. I was a failed poet—after my MFA I tried writing and publishing poems seriously for a decade. But I had a mentor, the late Harvey Shapiro (no relation) who was my editor at The New York Times Magazine. When I asked him to blurb my small press poetry book, he did, but he was blunt about what he really thought. He told me, “You have too many words and not enough music.“

I was heartbroken until I started making way more money writing about the same obsessions (bad relationships, addictions) for magazines and newspapers. Then I lengthened my work on the same topic for memoirs. Harvey thought I had more poetry in my prose than my poems. I published three memoirs by a relatively young age (in my forties.) But a short-term relationship that didn’t work out in the past wasn’t really worthy of another memoir. I couldn’t have told this story in nonfiction. But it felt right to use real life as a jumping off point, then fictionalize and dramatize more. My astute Knopf editor friend Deb Garrison once told me, “A novel that’s merely autobiographical is a great disappointment. But a memoir that reads like a novel is a great surprise.”

Though I never really understood people who proclaim, “I am a poet,” “I am a novelist,” or “I am a journalist,” when most authors have to switch genres several times over a long career. John Updike wrote short stories, novels, art criticism, bad poetry. Hell, the guy even drew his own pictures on his New Yorker pieces. I’m doing a panel about the benefits of switching genres. I just call myself a writer. And I teach by night, which started out as a way to pay bills and ended up a second calling.

Herrington: I agree with the “writer” label, across genres. Why did you set the book in the MFA program and the poetry world?

Shapiro: I have little imagination. That was where it happened. Plus I like the irony that two poets dedicated to the written word couldn’t communicate or tell each other anything important. At one point the hero says, “Poetry is about what’s in between the lines, what’s never said.” It was fun to wrap the book around what’s never said between them—and also there’s a big sexual secret that neither Daniel nor Lila ever tell their spouses.

Herrington: You and your character Lila share hunger for a big career and big love. Can an ambitious person have it all?

Shapiro: Freud says there’s two life forces: work and love. I’ve been blessed to have found joy in both. Though I needed a lot of therapy to get there and it took a long time. I married late and my first real book didn’t come out until I was 43. I think Rilke said a creative soul shouldn’t marry until 35 because before then you don’t really know who you are.

Herrington: In real life is it ever a good idea to revisit an old flame?

Shapiro: It’s funny, in Five Men Who Broke My Heart, which I started when I was 41, I went back to re-meet my top 5 heartbreaks of all time to find out what really happened. When I asked my high school boyfriend if we could get together to talk about the past, he said “I’d rather take out my own appendix with a bottle of Jack and a dull spoon.” But that made a great line, and we eventually did meet and I got a Modern Love piece out of it. All the other men were kind and generous and I’d say that experience was mind-blowingly wonderful. So the answer at that point would have been: yes! Call your exes! Mine your past for material. As Joan Didion says, “A writer’s always selling someone out.”

But I see What’s Never Said as a sort of fictional sequel to Five Men that shows the darker side. Maybe what was cute at 40 isn’t as adorable post- 50. Or some old lovers aren’t meant to ever become friends. In my writing workshop, when you bring in work, the worst insult is “There’s no blood here.” There’s definitely blood in What’s Never Said.

Herrington: I feel like you’re creative not just in your writing but in how you promote your work. For this project you’re hosting a Speed Shrinking for Love charity event, a Bring an Ex For Just Desserts party.  How do you come up with this stuff?

Shapiro: Well, my mom was a party planner so I use to watch her do funny theme parties. And—as I’ve written about—I no longer drink, smoke, toke. I quit bread, sugar, diet soda. (Subject of the last novel, Speed Shrinking.) Addictive personalities like mine don’t stop being compulsive. They just switch compulsions. So publishing books and book events are my new addictions. I have so much fun at book events I sometimes feel like I’m on heroin.

Herrington: As your one-time student, I remember you saying that “writing is a way to turn your worst experience into the most beautiful.” I feel that way myself. Now that you’re a popular writing professor at The New School, is publishing a book about your own confusing days as a student healing?

Shapiro: Definitely. Leaving Michigan and moving to New York at 20 to get my MFA and study with someone like Daniel changed my life. It led to all my dreams coming true. In some ways I’ve emulated him and feel intense gratitude. It seems sad that I can’t ever tell him how much he meant to me. So there really are words that were never said. Maybe in some ways the book is a love letter, written thirty years late.

Sue PicSusan Shapiro, an award-winning New School writing professor, is the New York Times bestselling author of 10 books including the coauthored Unhooked (Skyhorse Press, 2012) and The Bosnia List (Penguin 2014.) Her new novel, What’s Never Said, which took six years to finish, is just out from Heliotrope. Follow her on Twitter at @Susanshapironet.
Sarah Herrington has written for the New York Times, L.A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Tin House, Interview, Poets & Writers and she was named “a poet to watch” by O: The Oprah Magazine. She’s author of the poetry collection Always Moving (Bowery Books, 2001), Om Schooled (Addriva Press, 2012), Essential Yoga (Fair Winds Press, 2013) and coauthor of Wanderlust (Rodale, 2015). 

9 Literary Podcasts Worth Your Listen

There are a lot of great literary podcasts out there and we’re certainly not the first to make a list of our favorites but, whether we’re on a long bus trip across town or doing the dishes, we listen to podcasts. We wanted to throw our hat in the ring and point out a few that we haven’t seen mentioned and add our reasons for loving the ones we have. Like something we didn’t mention? Add your favorites to the comments below.


11092154_811896498901523_1411364205988036725_nI came across the Lit Up Show through a former MFA workshop-mate, Angela Ledgerwood, who cohosts with Emily Gould. She’s an incredibly charming and sweet person with this cotton-soft voice, and she’s genuinely curious about what makes writers tick. Her latest podcast with Emma Straub and Jess Walter is quite good. I listened until the very end while eating an entire tin of gummy candies. Very conversational, insightful and big-hearted (since Jess Walter is like the kindest writer ever). Plus, they do fun activities like drink Bloody Marys, crack jokes and talk craft. Other podcasts include Heidi Julavitz and Catherine Lacey. I like this place.


LND_April_9_NebelThis podcast is put on by Late Night Library. It features debut writers who are interviewed, usually, by their writerly friends. It’s a great way to get a taste of up-and-coming authors before committing to their book because, well, we’re all a little choosey. My fellow writing group member, Amber Keller, is one smart cookie and does a wonderful job of hosting the authors. My favorite episode so far is the one between Jay Nebel and Carl Adamshick because I like Jay’s poems and have enjoyed his readings in Portland. At times the podcasts can be a smidge stuffy, but what I like most about this series is the little pang of excitement you have for these debuters, that they have this opportunity to talk about their first books, maybe for the first time. It’s sort of magical and dream-fulfilling and I appreciate that.


goggles018-3I’m totally new to this one. It caught my attention because a publisher in Portland posted a link to an article about Brad Listi in LA Weekly. If you’re interested in the inner lives of writers, this is the podcast for you. It has a lightly edited feel, which works to give the podcast a refreshing frankness. In the style of Marc Maron, Listi starts off the podcast by talking a little about his personal life. Glimpses into his world grow on you the more you listen. At this point, I’m already addicted. As an interviewer, he’s generally interested in the paths writers’ lives have taken; he’ll ask about spirituality and childhood in a causal way that seems unexceptional but sparks interesting answers. He comes off as an empathetic listener and a generally nice person. It’s well worth a listen if you want to know more about your favorite contemporary literary writer but don’t be surprised if you get hooked on Listi’s unassuming, yet engrossing, personal narrative.


It’s simply one poem per day. There’s usually no intro and no discussion. Just a poem. It’s a nice one.  I also like that you can access their archive.  I recommend the poem from Dorothea Lasky, a great lady and a great poet.


sherman-alexie-jess-walter-1024x755This was a fun one to stumble into. It’s Jess Water and Sherman Alexie talking about writing and it’s delightful. These are two guys who take the craft seriously but not themselves. Their deep insight into the writing process is continually engaging. When I was an editor at Tin House, I hung a sign on the wall that read: Beware of Sherman Alexie. I did this because he continually submitted through the slush and I didn’t want the interns to overlook him. I’m not sure why he did that instead of submitting though an editor, but in my mind it speaks to a humbleness that I admired. I eventually took the sign down because visiting writers kept asking about it and I didn’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. Anyway, you should listen to this. I hope these guys keep doing it for a long time.


I’m putting these together because they are both about language and etymology.  I like them both for different reasons. The Allusionist is part of the wonderful podcast collective, Radiotopia. (I highly recommend any of their programs). It’s short and sweet, while Lexicon Valley tends to be more in-depth but also a little more self indulgent (in a good way, I think). Both have an episode about the entymology of the word orange. Did you know the fruit was called orange before the color? You would if you listened to either of these podcasts.


1432567143101This is not a literary podcast but I wanted to throw it in because I think Scott Carrier, the host, has a literary sensibility. At his best, his essays and reports are emotionally raw, lyrically constructed, and closely observed. Carrier is a veteran radio producer but his podcasts are usually more loosely produced than his work for outlets like This American Life. In some of the newest episodes, he and his daughter went to Nepal to report on the recent devastation. He was there and gone before the final earthquake hit. The resulting episodes felt immediate, personal, and distinct.


This one used to be hit or miss for me but since One Story editor, Hannah Tinti, got involved, it’s been great. I ran into an actor in real life one day. He was the kind of guy who’s been in everything, including like five seasons of True Blood, but I couldn’t place his face. When I heard his voice I knew him instantly. He’d read several stories for the podcast. So Selected Shorts looms pretty large in my mind–at least larger than True Blood, of which I have seen an embarrassing amount.

The last episode featured Stacey Richter’s “The Minimalist,” read by Parker Posey. I wasn’t a huge fan of her readings of some Dorothy Parker stories in an earlier podcast but her intentional rhythm in this one fit the tone perfectly. It pulled me in. The story manages to be emotionally rich and complex even as it’s building this sparse inner world of a minimalist artist who finds even a white canvas “too representative.”


icon-PodcastsThis is, by far, my favorite podcast but, weirdly, might be the one I listen to least. Why? Because it’s so good and so thoughtful that I want to devote all of my attention to it. There’s no doing dishes or mowing the lawn. I don’t even like to knit complicated patterns while I listen to it. But I will save them up and listen on long cross-country drives (which maybe says something not super great about my driving).

Here’s a brief story about that: I was driving from California to Portland and as I was entering the onramp for I-5, I stopped to pick up a hitchhiker in a cowboy hat. Somehow, the cowboy hat lured me in, As soon as he got into the car, I realized that, even if he wasn’t a serial killer, he might not be that interesting and I’d be stuck talking to him for the next three hours on our way up to Humboldt county. Lucky for me, he turned out to be a drug dealer (a profession I know little about) who had a thick southern accent, which, he said, he’d acquired after spending three months in New Orleans. He spent the next few hours telling me drug-dealing stories—mostly pot (his brief foray into heroin did not turn out well, apparently).

I let him off at a gas station and everything was fine until started the podcast featuring Jennifer Egan reading “The Other Place” by Mary Gaitskill. Have you read it? No? Well might I recommend that you don’t read or listen to it right after you’ve been alone with a hitchhiker for any period of time. If that’s not the case, there’s no reason not to listen to it now:

TL;DR: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast is flawless.

1430679677198Hannah Pass and Desiree Andrews are editors at Vera Collective. They’re from Portland and Austin, respectively and spend their time reading good stuff, listening to podcast, and doing all the Portland/Austin things you care to imagine.1430679625653

Silverfisted: An Interview with Deborah Landau

“I love to be frenetically busy,” says Deborah Landau, author of The Uses of the Body. In her third collection, out since April, she explores the complexities of living in a female body. In an honest discussion, Landau pondered how a woman can be defined by her biological usefulness.

Published by Copper Canyon Press, an independent, non-profit founded in 1972, which is currently based in Port Townsend, Washington. The press believes that poetry is vital to language and living and they have produced over 400 titles, including translation, anthologies, prose books about poetry, reissues of out-of-print classics and works from emerging and revered American poets.

Landau draws from her own experience and brings the reader on a journey that is sometimes dark, haunting, sensual and funny; the collection deals with traumatic subjects: aging, illness, the death of a close friend. Though the tome contains suffering, ultimately it ends on a note of hope with her daughter’s birth. Landau is the Director of NYU’s Creative Writing program. She seems too glamorous to live in Park Slope, with her husband, three kids and a dog.

Linda Kleinbub: Your poems seem very personal. How do they reflect on your own life?

Deborah Landau: My poems are distilled. They come from life, but they are not my life. It’s important that the poems to work as art, on the level of language. So the book isn’t straightforwardly autobiographical–though a lot of these things did happen.

UsesBodyCover-1Kleinbub:  I love the line in the first poem, “I don’t have a pill for that, / the doctor said.” You reference that death is inescapable. Are you focused on the negative side of aging?

Landau: There are troubling things that aren’t going to go away. Our bodies are going to wear out, we’re going to get old and die. There is nothing anyone can do to change that. My psychologist sister-in-law says I lack the ability to be in denial. But how can one integrate the simultaneity of pleasure and suffering in the world? Eventually something horrible will happen to all of us, and there’s no escaping it. I wish there were a pill for that.

Kleinbub: The book begins with a celebration. “Well look, the wedding guests are here again.”

Landau: I work in Paris each summer (directing writing programs for NYU) and one summer I lived across the street from a little synagogue.  Every day at noon there was a wedding. At first it was so charming.

Kleinbub: It is an important rite of passage, but you seem to have an irreverent attitude towards it. Your dark wit has been compared to Dorothy Parker, “Now scurry ho, before someone else / goes down on the bride,” “We’re going to swallow vodka / and slap down money.” Where did this perspective come from?

Landau: As the days wore on the weddings appeared more and more formulaic—each a kind of production featuring the same set, plot, the costumes, and characters, with virtually no variation. I was troubled by how systematic and regulated they were, the same ritual every day. The long poem that opens the book came out of the experience of watching those weddings from my window every day for a month.

Kleinbub: “Mr. & Mrs. Suffering” is filled with beautiful, lines like “He knows every road of me. / Can find the turnoff without a map.” Yet the same time there is caution, “One should make full use as possible / before times up. In Paradise / You should appreciate. Don’t squander.”

Landau: The sequence considers the pleasures and complexities of marriage and domestic life–the experience of being in a long-term monogamous relationship, the comforts of commitment, what happens to desire.

Unknown-3Kleinbub: When did you realize that you wanted to be a poet?

Landau: When I was thirteen my mother gave me Anne Sexton’s Love Poems as a gift. I was hooked, that book was so intense. I hadn’t seen poetry like that before.

Kleinbub: I know your mother died when you were in your late 20’s, my mother passed away when I was in my early 30’s.

Landau: It never gets any easier! We still need these people. I still miss her terribly.

Kleinbub: What are the advantages working with a small press?

Landau: I feel very fortunate to be a Copper Canyon author. They have an amazing list, make beautiful books, and excel at getting the books out to readers. The staff there is amazing, they take a great deal of care with the books they do, and it’s a pleasure to work with them.

Kleinbub: Can you describe your experience working with Copper Canyon Press versus working with other publishing houses?

Landau: My first book (Orchidelirium) was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye as winner of the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for poetry and published by Anhinga press. Most first books of poetry find their way into the world through a contest — it’s exciting to win, but after that you’re sort of on your own. I was grateful when my second book (The Last Usable Hour) was accepted by Michael Wiegers. It’s been nice to feel part of a publishing house in a more ongoing way.

Kleinbub: Does teaching summers in Paris affect your writing?

Landau: I’m in Paris twice a year (a month in the summer, 10 days in January) to direct two programs for NYU: an undergraduate intensive and a low-residency MFA. It’s inspiring to be in that beautiful city, surrounded by writers, and the change of scenery and shift in routine is revitalizing. It’s great to get away, and I have more time to write while I’m there–I’m working, but don’t also have to take care of three kids, make everyone’s breakfast, and walk the dog.

Kleinbub:  Your book begins focused on fears about aging and death, “It scares me to watch / a woman hobble along / the sidewalk, hunched adagio,” yet “Late Summer” is about the miracle of birth.

Landau: That sequence came in a headlong rush. I was on a train (coming home from AWP Boston) and had an incredibly vivid sense memory of the totally unexpected conception and birth of my daughter. Then when I got home someone had sent me the video of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”. The visual imagery and mood is nostalgic old Hollywood, and for some reason it triggered something for me.  I wrote that last long sequence. While most of the book was written while I was in Paris, that section was written in Brooklyn.

Kleinbub: Can you describe the memories that emerged?

Landau: I’d returned home from Paris, and hadn’t seen my husband for a month. Our boys were away at camp, we had a few days to relax by ourselves, and inadvertently created our daughter. The whole thing felt so strange, I mean, you expect terrible surprises in life, like a cancer diagnosis, and then this beautiful thing happens. It was a marvelous surprise, this unexpected surging up of life force.

Kleinbub: In your poems about your daughter you make her into a foreign object, “stain purpling the white field,” and “bald and silverfisted.” Were you trying to emulate Sylvia Plath?

Landau: I’ve read a lot of Plath and the influence is there, of course–though I didn’t set out to “emulate” her. I hope it’s more subtle than that! Pregnancy is surreal – in some ways it does feel like a kind of alien invasion. It’s all very science fiction to have something growing inside you, and then to have a person emerge fully formed from your body.

Kleinbub: I loved this passage from “Late Summer:”   

What climate then immodest

fully boarded was I and set off with her—


Xanax Vermox rivulets radiation—ferried her flighting

to California to grow rioting drunk and dance at M’s wedding


she just a pale and puny welled inside me


without visa without a pretty box

dollface-down I could have scorched


her could have drown her could have crushed her

not knowing veined was she

and my blood rich and alcohol.


She flipped around in there.

I slept off the buzz in my hotel.


Landau:  Thank you. I’d been to a wedding in California, and gotten quite drunk. I didn’t know I was pregnant. If I’d known, I’d have skipped the Xanax and cocktails.

Kleinbub: So the last line “I slept off the buzz in my hotel” is literal?

Landau: Yes. But my daughter turned out fine, thank goodness.

Kleinbub: I know you still miss your mom, but how do you feel the new mother/ daughter relationship in your life?

Landau: It’s wonderful. I lost my mother, I had two sons. I’d always wanted a daughter and then she showed up.  She’s just turned three. She is lovely and affectionate. My sons adore her, we all do. She’s been the sweetest addition to our family.


Unknown-1Deborah Landau is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Uses of the Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2015) and The Last Usable Hour,a Lannan Literary Selection published by Copper Canyon in 2011. Her first book, Orchidelirium, was selected by Naomi Shihab Nye for the Robert Dana Anhinga Prize for Poetry. Her work has appeared in The Paris ReviewTin HousePoetry, The New YorkerBoston ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and elsewhere. Her poems have been widely anthologized in places such as The Best American Erotic PoemsPlease Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking 2015), Not for Mothers Only, (Fence Books), Women’s Work: Modern Poets Writing in English, and translated into Mongolian, Romanian, Russian, and Greek.
She was educated at Stanford, Columbia, and Brown, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and received a Ph.D. in English and American Literature. For many years she co-directed the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series and co-hosted the video interview.
Linda Kleinbub is a mentor at Girls Write Now, an organization that works with at-risk high school girls who have a passion for writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Observer, Our Town – Downtown, Statement of Record, Short, Fast and Deadly and The Best American Poetry Blog.  Her poem “Like that of the Purple Orchid in My Garden” will appear in the forthcoming book Grabbing the Apple: An Anthology of New York Women Poets. She is also a painter and photographer.
Killing the Angel on display at Housing Works. Photo by Skyler Fox.

How to Kill Your Angels

I originally got the idea to start a literary magazine after getting a few years’ experience advising the yearbook at the high school where I teach. I was beginning to enjoy the process of layout, that feeling of receiving freshly printed books in those boxes (they should bottle the smell), and I felt like being in the driver’s seat for once instead of constantly hitchhiking, hoping an agent would pick up my manuscripts.

I’d been obsessed with Virginia Woolf for a while, having been exposed to her work for the first time at the New School while in the MFA program, and in particular I loved her essay, “Professions for Women,” in which she urges female writers to kill their angels–those “be nice” social pressures on women of the time that discourage honest expression. Back when I would routinely apply for every literary job I’d find online, I’d pitched a literary column to a startup magazine with the title Killing the Angel. I never heard back from the magazine, the title remained mine, and so it was decided.

womrathsI estimated that I’d be able to produce the first issue for around $2,000 and organized a Kickstarter campaign that was successfully completed by the end of 2011. Friends, families, fellow MFA-ers, co-workers, and a few anonymous strangers helped me the goal a reality.

Once I had the funding, I had to cultivate submissions. Flyers in coffeeshops and campuses, Craigslist ads, MFA newsletters, and social media helped spread the word. Using a Google form for submissions helped keep everything organized, and I sent paper contracts and checks to accepted writers. We pay writers $20 for each accepted piece and ask them to sign on First North American Serial Rights, which allows for the rights to revert back to the writer after publishing with us, allowing them to publish the same piece again elsewhere (we do ask them to acknowledge us if they do publish again, which they do).

I realize that $20 isn’t a lot, and I’d love to be able to pay more eventually. I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to pay writers, and artists in general, for their work. It’s one of the strongest values that I want KTA to embody. Let’s abolish “great for exposure” from our vocabulary as editors. Exposure alone is not compensation. I think art is often taken for granted, yet in many ways it is what gives meaning to our lives, whether it’s reading a great poem, watching a ballet, or viewing evocative paintings. These are things that we value and we should show it by compensating the artists.

One of my co-workers used to run a literary magazine, and I picked his brain a lot for different questions I had about everything from rights to printing specs. I actually modeled many of our specs off our high school’s literary magazine. For the first issue, I worked with a graphic designer on the cover and interior, and she generously gave me the templates so that I could do all of the art and layout myself for subsequent issues, which saves a lot of money! CLMP was helpful as well regarding questions I had about ISSNs.

I’ve been asked a lot if I’d ever move to an online model, and I always say no. It’s not that I dislike online magazines; rather, it’s more about what print journals can offer. I take pride in creating a beautiful product, and I enjoy the process of mailing them out, often internationally, and getting those emails from people in Australia, the UK, France, saying, “It arrived, and it is wonderful!”

Killing the Angel on display at Housing Works. Photo by Skyler Fox.
Killing the Angel on display at Housing Works. Photo by Skyler Fox.

Once the first issue arrived in its boxes, we were ready to distribute. I reached out to several bookstores, and three of them agreed to carry the journal, one of them being Shakespeare & Company in Paris, France. I also sold the issue online. For the first issue, I also got a lucky break with the company Indie Gift Box, who purchased 100 copies at a heavily discounted rate for their “Stories & Lyrics” themed box. This helped spread the word about the issue as well. Shakespeare & Company has continued to carry each of our issues, and it doesn’t get much cooler than that–what a fantastic bookstore. One of the bookstores that carried us eventually stopped stocking literary magazines, so we’re down to just two stores that carry us.

Once our first issue arrived, I planned a launch event at the KGB Bar in Manhattan, and it pretty much the most amazing night ever. Eight of the first issue contributors came and read, including one author from the DC area, and the venue was so packed that people had to stand in the hallway. I remember standing at the lectern, giving the opening speech, and seriously trying not to cry from all of the emotions I felt.

Since that first issue, a few things have changed. I hired a copy editor for the next issue, and I did the layout myself working in Word, as opposed to InDesign (which my graphic designer used for the first issue). Working off of the template, I also did the cover myself with some help from my tech-savvy husband (then-boyfriend–I know, a critical detail for this essay). By the third issue, I switched from offset to digital printing, a move that would ultimately save me hundreds of dollars on printing costs, and had learned enough about Photoshop to do the cover myself.

Another thing that’s fluctuated are our submissions. Depending on the needs of a particular issue, I might reach out and solicit submissions from specific people. There was one issue where I felt there was a dearth of short prose pieces, so I set up a flash fiction contest with prizes of cash and publication, and that helped flesh out the issue. Being listed on Duotrope, the Grinder, and The Review Review has also helped increase our number of submissions more recently.

At this point in the summer, I’ve accepted the work for our fourth issue, contracts have been signed, and writers have been paid. All that’s left is for me to format the issue, edit it, create the cover, and send it to the printers. A typical yearly cycle for Killing the Angel will have the annual issue released in the fall with some sort of accompanying event (in addition to the KGB Bar, we’ve held issue launches at Small World Coffee in Princeton, New Jersey and Hidden Grounds in New Brunswick, New Jersey). Submissions are open from fall to spring, and then in the spring we have our reading period. Acceptances and rejections go out around May. We put the issue together in the summer, and the cycle continues. It’s a very non-hurried way of doing things, and as someone who refreshes her inbox a lot, I do have moments when I think the cycles should move a little faster, but I also like the slow and steady pace of it all.

There have been surprises along the way. I’m always surprised at how many international submissions we get. Word gets around, even for print magazines. I’ve also met different writers and have become really invested in them. Each issue, for example, has multiple poems from one author that submitted to us the first year and we just fell in love with her work. One of my most staggering moments was Naomi Shihab Nye personally responding to a request for a writer interview. That was truly a moment to remember! Her thoughtful and insightful interview is featured in the second issue of Killing the Angel.

Depending on the crowd, the title of the magazine gets mixed reactions. I usually sum it up by saying something along the lines of, “It means losing your artistic inhibitions and writing honestly.” I remember opening an account for KTA at the bank and the look on the teller’s face when I told her what I wanted the account to be called. She looked somewhat horrified. When I explained Virginia Woolf’s metaphor to her, though, she said, “Oh, that’s cool!” So I think the title is a good conversation starter and instantly garners interest.

I think the magazine has also allowed me to continue on my own creative journey. For me, “killing the angel” is a concept that I believe in philosophically, but personally struggle with sometimes in reality. It’s been a wonderful learning experience to live out these principles and confront the incongruities between the abstract and the concrete, and to make sense of them, as both a person, an editor, and a writer. I continue to write and submit my own creative work to other publishers, though I haven’t yet published myself in Killing the Angel. Who knows? Maybe this will be the year. For as much responsibility and commitment as the magazine brings, it’s incredibly inspiring to have something to mold freely and change through time, and it’s extremely rewarding to be able to inspire readers and writers along the way.

10150550_10103658194825129_715991065_n (1)Jessica Rosevear edits and publishes Killing the Angel, an annual literary journal inspired by Virginia Woolf. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program.

Seasoned with Salt: Adding Flavor to the Independent Press

1. Setting Apart the Independent Press

What attracts an MFA program graduate—or a current MFA student, for that matter—to an independent publisher stems from the dog-eat-dog world of big publishing. The competition to legitimize yourself as a published author is extreme. Some have a kneejerk reaction about indie publishing and think that those who choose to publish this way do so as a desperate, last resort–an attempt to reverse the failed MFA syndrome that stigmatizes the perpetually rejected writer. Publishing with an independent press insists that our stories must be told, that our prose is necessary for the world at large, no matter how small the reach may be. It is worth telling, and it is significant and doesn’t require legitimacy from big publishing to enrich its value.

Unknown-1In a writer’s forum online, a fellow author recently said, “So many contemporary novels seem manic, agitated, escapist, goofy, fantastically un-serious, and concerned with nothing of lasting value.” I agree with this assessment because I’ve come to realize, as my family launches our independent publishing press, that little is expected of novels. This assertion is considered old-fashioned in the present day culture and for the few like us, the purpose of establishing an independent publishing press will allow writers to produce a fiction that removes itself from the pressures of a market that craves more vulgarity, more immorality, more profanity, and more cynicism.

To be keenly aware of our position in the culture and to notice what sets us apart or what makes us like the rest, to observe our environment and our behaviors can be the edicts that measure our success in publishing. A good sum of what makes one a successful author is credited to the achievements that endow them: their alma mater, their social circle, and even to a degree, their appearance. All this indeed is how the aspiring author brands herself in the 21st century, following an order, therefore canceling out the work of her words and the diligence of her hands.

Why are so many writers branded as angry, bitter, and abounding with self-loathing? Because the pursuit of publishing traditionally means withstanding the line of unfairness. Rather than continue to ponder what can be done, how this can all be reconciled, it is more urgent to define the present day landscape of publishing. American fiction is churned through a manufactured assembly-line. It is produced and reproduced, reused and upcycled. It is hard to imagine that the big presses will ever release their hold on what Americans are reading en masse, as it is a systematic and regimented industry, where commercial literature is ubiquitously available and lauded.

So what glory does independent publishing possess, given the pathologies we find in big publishing? What benefits are there for independent publishing after the MFA?

  • More deliberate representation of the writer’s work. The writing that an independent press can identify with will eventually be brought to life as it skips getting sifted through a commercial machine. A work is able to retain its character because the press is less likely to negotiate its integrity, as opposed to relegating it to a sales pitch of sorts, that difficult-to-sell-to perception commercial publishing is sensitive to.
  • More opportunities to write. The writer is less likely to continue submitting over and over again to all those possible markets that will never bite the bait. What ends up happening to a writer who is actively seeking a market is that he languishes. A writer doesn’t write when he is out to market. A writer’s greatest need is to write and he cannot accomplish this if his time is consumed at the post office.
  • More mutual engagement and participation. Publishing a book independently is all contingent on the writer partnering with the indie press. An indie publisher gets schooled more quickly and intimately on the project it is publishing, along with learning how to sharpen a writer’s craft and bring it to its full potential through the editing process in order for it to narrate a compelling story or argument. This appeals to writers who won’t perceive their work as a token of sales and instant gratification for a market hungry for trends that are temporal and that last as long as a vapor.
  • Independent presses stay connected with writers. We can experience the literary world despite what trends may be looming at any given season by connecting to several writers and other independent presses. This allows us to avoid growing stale and monolithic. Because we run on a short staff, the labor is intensive, yet is appealing nonetheless as we can help our writers grow in the environment that is writer-centered, not corporate-centered, rising above the overhead of mammoth infrastructure.
  • Independent presses carve themselves out of what not too many people are looking for. We are able to rouse from the stagnation of mainstream literature that is relentlessly intolerable of a worldview that isn’t our own. As a fledgling independent publisher, we don’t necessarily fall into the current trends of the day so we can focus on delivering the best literature to the niche market we hope to support. We exist not just to exist, but to attract those drawn to that niche, growing and gaining visibility in the process, opening it up to go reach beyond with our message.

Independent publishing as a post-MFA writer doesn’t promise the commercial attention and adulation to which many emerging writers aspire. Publishing with an indie press is a deviation from the eventual expectations of what a big publisher would warrant of a writer turned author: being put through channels of approvals and daunting performance standards. Writers who succeed in this atmosphere of expectancy have a lot to lose and much to risk for the propagation of branding oneself as an author. Shedding the moniker of writer in exchange for that of author is no small feat, for the habitual noise of growing a platform of followers and fans in the social media stratosphere breeds more competition for attention, saturating the marketplace of ideas with frivolous or trivial calls for action: click, retweet, like, etc. I find myself sucked into this monster, loathing it as a necessary evil to the industry we find ourselves in. But, ironically, it only compels me and my fledgling indie press to persevere, to write outside of the box, outside of the matrix of mainstream literature, and more importantly, to get out of the pigeonhole that besets us.

2. Epiphanies after the MFA

There was a time when writers wrote alone, solitary, reclused in a cabin tucked away in the wilderness. This has no place in the psyche of a writer today. We write in coffee shops, libraries (which no longer observe silence), and hotel lobbies where the noise levels of music are abrasive to the soul.

imagesAs I recall my days as an MFA student—now 15 years in the past—I wonder what would have happened to me if I had kept a pulse on the industry, on the ever changing market of publishing, if I hadn’t kept myself tucked away for so long. Now, I am regaining traction and mining information that was not readily available during a time when a small percentage of businesses had a web presence. I don’t pull my writing from the same well I did in the MFA and because of that, I am conflicted and find it necessary to choose where I want to go with my writing, and in what direction I want our independent publishing press to go in. Fifteen years of lost time was like being struck in something unexplained, like living in an episode of the X-Files, or the Twilight Zone. I could almost hear Rod Serling monologue my confusion, my apprehensive interest in the 21st-century literary world:

Erendira, a homeschool mom, who once burned the tip of her pen over the pages of black composition notebooks now finds that 15-year interval has left her frozen in time. Mobile phones, apps, cloud computing, and Google have turned many a writer’s writing process into a convenience store ready for the taking. These technologies—we’ll soon find—give Erendira a new lease on life and the much anticipated nudge she will need to recover the drought in her quill, ushering a renaissance that can only be found here at the confluence of the 21st century and the Twilight Zone.

That seems to sum it up for me. A confluence. I am merging and emerging (again) and identify myself with the writers that are coming out of the MFA and forging onto a mainstream literary culture that is unforgiving and relentless.

Today, I regret to disparage my past published stories, urban worlds inhabited by young people—unmarried, unhurried and torn between their bicultural sensibilities. I am grateful that it was a period in my life when I was able to explore the world of publishing on a fundamental level, and at the time, as an MFA graduate, it was quite rewarding to have been published in succession.

I have never forgotten where I was in the MFA: fear and curiosity in one hand, surrender and renewal on the other. At present, I have completed two short stories that I began to write ten months ago—in between teaching my kindergartner how to read, and teaching my fourth grader how to dress-up his sentences. Nothing has solidified yet. Two stories that are autobiographical in style as my past stories were, however, more notably this time with an influence from the writers I’ve been reading—the lush prose, the non-linear direction with a plot narrated in flashbacks, long sentences that encapsulate character-centered stories. I’ve found that once I completed these works, I went to market and wow, was it hard to find a home for them! I know the old adage: Short story collections are a fairly tough sell these days as publishing tightens and fewer break through, including those classified as a novels-in-stories. This, along with other deviations from what the MFA is expected to manifest, has opened my eyes to the rigors of being a writer, enough so that I am motivated to launch, with my husband, an independent publishing press.

Post-MFA Expectation #1: The expectation to teach.

In the MFA, we were encouraged to become writing teachers. We followed along, exhausting ourselves with grading papers. Repeat the cycle and if you’re one of those few, you’ll make it to the faculty at a community college, after paying your dues as an adjunct.

It appears, then, that fiction writers are professors, lecturers, and faculty. As teachers, we like to think of ourselves as agents directing traffic. Write this way, avoid that, explain the other, and omit the former. What is your point? What can you use to support your thesis? We direct the traffic of words spinning on the road map of a wilderness lost. It is wild and it is noble to help others learn to write. Just like helping others read. I do this every day with my children. But likewise, as teachers, we can identify bad writing and then find out that habitually reading dull writing has made our critical thinking lose its luster. An MFA recipient that continues in academia as a teacher will grade papers and relinquish time devoted to craft and writing of their own. If a writer follows the sequence determined for them in the MFA, they will perhaps settle for being an adjunct, like I did, and be in no hurry to pile on more commitments that would put a dent in their writing.

I was heavily distracted with the job of correcting others’ writing, of scouring through compositions riddled with memoir and opinion and no critical thinking that engaged or inspired a response. I lost my passion for writing after reading and teaching the mechanics of a good sentence, all the way through demonstrating a premise and following it to its logical conclusion. I still meet people today that aspire to write, but don’t want to do the work it takes to write well. They are not practicing their craft, let alone honoring their writing in truth. There is an absence of integrity in the writing as writing begins to look more carelessly drawn and slack in execution.

Aside from teaching writing, the writer may pursue all the edibles the writing life has to offer: awards, grants, fellowships, conferences, colonies, and other similar prestigious consumables that revel in the competitive market. Although these milestones in the writer’s life give them an edge in the marketplace, there is much to be gleaned from them nevertheless. Ultimately, rejection is what the writer learns—and they learn it well.

The indie writer is likely to be concerned with the number of projects she needs to juggle rather than with the market she needs to please and all that will entail, thus she has the bandwidth needed to focus on craft. That is why telling a good story is a serious feat and is not for the faint of heart. Writers who trust their readers enough to give them the best they have to offer—the best they’ve assembled from writers that support an aesthetic that bewilders, that moves and provokes a response to their writing—are the writers that will have a solid niche that can embrace them best through independent publishing, devoid of the marketing machine that pressures them to comply to a trend.

Post-MFA Expectation #2: The expectation to fit a mold.

I read in Anis Shivani’s essay entitled, “American Fiction in Dismal State,” that writers today are “polite, sociable, inoffensive, wanting to spark no controversy, staying clear of any dangerous, big, meaningful ideas, even at the cost of their own increased commercial viability. To win the game by making a large statement, and thus causing discomfort within one’s established social zone, is not worth winning the game at all.”

This is a wretched consequence for the MFA alum who, like me, has run through the mill of a writing program only to discover that the market is saturated with mediocre new writers who are very savvy in the fields of self-promotion, of acquiring a platform of followers, likes, mentions, and all other adulation, turning them into billboard wordsmiths. They are witty and charming, but vacuous in advancing the cause of literature because it is instantaneous and necessary to plug in and become visible. Where is the time invested to write, if trends and information sound bites are in order throughout the entire day? Reaching people is urgent in these cases, thus writing and crafting become secondary.

After returning to the current literary scene, I’ve come to realize in greater detail that the fight for even morality in the marketplace is paper thin. Shivani writes:

The individual fiction writer would have to be strong enough to take the moral offensive against writing that deludes the reader into thinking that his private ignominies are worth celebration and memorialization. He must buck the trend by going against the monopoly on career rewards currently held by the writing industry (which for all intents and purposes blacklists and boycotts real outsiders, although of course the terms of the game can’t be framed so bluntly), and by fighting the herd mentality of publishers whose interest is no longer to discover great fiction and build writers’ careers, but who only want to replicate the last great sensation… To come to writing from a strong moral position, some belief in universal values that makes one sleepless and distraught, will be like a fat, bald, ugly man crashing in on a slumber party of blonde supermodels. [Emphasis mine]

It is true, we want to be the next [enter your favorite writer here] and that is impossible to attain. Sure, we are influenced by our favorite writers, but it appears the big publishers want to fit a square peg into a circle, or vice versa. Remember, big publishers are for what sells, and what is trending, and right now, it looks like immorality is the soup du jour. The independent publisher, as I see it in my own purpose, will work hard to demystify this, to make room and to lend space for those writers that are weary of the same flavor of soup that the big houses are serving. Personally, we have found as an independent press that the mainstream only has in small doses what we like to read, but as hungry as an audience is, it cannot live on soup alone, soup that has lost its flavor. We will feed the niche market that we serve with what the soul hungers most: a wholesome diet of goodness that quenches its thirst during this scarce season in the literary world.

Post-MFA Expectation #3: The expectation to speak the same language.

Far too often, we see work that is immensely agenda driven that it no longer seems original or challenging, but rather trite and predictable. I read what many may think is a politically neutral stance on subject matter, but in reality it is not. It is riddled in fear. Writers become so afraid to be honest that they believe doing so may offend and become incendiary, thus pegging them as a prude or as preachy and fundamental. I remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”

I’ve experienced a fear to speak about authentic truth in light of morality and faith because it may be too political, and does not align with the group-think mentality of the present day literary market. I ask myself why most markets are unwelcoming of Christian themes, or conversations of a Judeo-Christian framework in the context of literature? Why is it that these areas of subject matter become too uncomfortable for the masses, enough so that they blacklist their writers as controversial, and antagonistic? I can relate to what Shivani eludes to when he says that taking a strong moral position ruins the party.

The mainstream literary market praises the many varieties of profane fiction manufactured today. Over a decade ago, one particular emerging writer whom I corresponded with on several occasions via postal mail (yes, writers wrote letters back then) was lauded as the new voice of our generation, a breakthrough for writers of color to take note of. Although I do not take any of that away, I regret that writers of color seem to be communicating in the same voice that is define for us today. It is not hyperbole. The liberal culture considers this shift as new and fresh, evoking a new type of literary expectation, outputting it to the mainstream. When this happens, when there’s no more room left in the echelons of debut writing, new talent, new voices, as it were, it in fact perpetuates the obscurity of that voice which doesn’t roar for attention, lest it be controversial, political, ambitious, and disobedient to the indulgences of what the establishment expects of a minority writer. In other words, it’s as if a writer of color is told: you’re a minority, thus, your characters need to curse, blaspheme, and more importantly, they need be fighting their way through racism or misogyny or any other hang up. And they need to be immoral.

This is not to say that all characters depicted in our fiction should be goody-goods or oversimplified, but off-the-page implications of character flaws don’t short-change a story. Let the reader work. Let the reader think for themselves. Let the reader interpret the complexity of why characters do what they do—or don’t do.

It is disconcerting that in the literary world—when it comes to matters of a Christian polemic—depictions of morality and faith continue to be over- simplified or else are ignored all together. These approaches to writing—or editing a faith-filled piece—stumps the work’s full potential. Because critical thinking is a necessary tool to use to read this type of writing, it is work, and readers don’t want to work. They want to be entertained. They want to off-load analysis and symbolism to the workshop space, or to literary criticism—but not to publishing. Thus, the work is dismissed.

I think this is why many writers who do not want to oversimplify their faith seek publishing with an independent press. Case in point: I can only surmise that because my characters walk on the periphery of a Christian faith, they are deemed irrelevant to the culture, or are marginalized for political reasons. They are not worthy of attention for their source of influence is relegated in society. Editors don’t offer full disclosure as to why these types of pieces get cast out early, or later in the tier—and understandably so, they have feedback parameters in place, okay. But when you read literary journals devoid of these themes, you realize that indeed there is a deficit, there is a need, and more importantly, there is a reader for this type of work seeking literature that shares this sensibility. For too long, since I was an MFA testing the trends of the day and then living outside of it for a while, there has been an exception to the banal call for diversity. Writers treating on Christian themes are not invited to participate in any discourse that is mainstream—unless it defames the biblical institution—so an independent publishing press that can deliver to this niche market is in a critical position because it undoubtedly will imprint itself in the reading repertoire of these types of writers seeking to share their work with those that will find it significant.

3. Closing the Gap Full Circle

The independent press fills the void. As an independent press, we need to decide what we want to publish. That decision doesn’t come from the demands of a market that wants to continue reading about cannibalism (vampire books) or sexual immorality and escapism (chick lit, romance novels). Are readers debased to such a degree that they don’t ruminate on matters of a global scale, matters of consequence? I am comforted by what Shivani says:

The greatest concern is that the astute reader of fiction will disappear altogether – again, not because movies or the Internet or cable television are working in a zero-sum game, but because writers are too small-minded to understand that with every acceleration in the profusion and vitality of media comes a reduction in the word-for-word quality of production, which is the gap the writer must rush to fill in.

Since I completed my MFA, my language and my inspiration and fire has come from a different source than that of the past. Debuting a writer’s work in literary journals and presses remains at the hands of interns, volunteers, present MFA students, and transitory managing editors. I am sure not much has changed since 1999 when I completed my MFA. The industry continues to lean towards a certain flavor of literature; trends continue to define what gets published.

Now, as opposed to in 1999, MFAs grow platforms which promise them a future in publishing. It is the writer at work, creating their market base full-speed-ahead of what the publishing entourage would have been devoted to doing themselves before the turn of the century. Platforms are palpable and visible. They are the new resumes, an appraisal letter of the modern day emergent writer, where numbers matter to the profit of one’s worth. It is a popularity contest, the present day high school yearbook autographs.

The virtual platform makes the writer accessible to her followers. I remember what Michael Hyatt tweeted not long ago: “Activate your fans. Don’t just collect them like baseball cards.” That is the way of the social stratosphere. Collect and display and interact just enough. Because after all, it’s about numbers and reach.

I am dating myself. I am aging in an industry in which millennials wield incredible force, a commodity that requires little effort to promote and develop because the adage is just be yourself. Just get in the game and build yourself up. It seems effortless, it seems magnanimous to create community in this manner.

I cannot say that in the span of fifteen years since I finished my MFA that I’ve published two or three novels; that I actually called that agent who wrote me a note in the year 2000 and praised my work, who now, 15 years later, would be too busy to even talk to me since her novel is currently on a bestseller list, gracing the aisles of a Barnes & Noble. I cannot claim that I’ve journeyed through the teaching circuit, although I am a former adjunct—a freeway flyer who once found herself between three separate campuses in one semester teaching writing courses and grading papers up to the wee hours of the night during my first year of matrimony. I can’t tell you that I’ve conformed to the hopes of MFAs that have workshopped their treasured stories in between full time jobs and spouses who reluctantly left what they knew in order to support their beloved’s dream of being a novelist.

I just can’t say it. So much time has passed. So much has changed this century.

During the MFA, I was consumed in my notebooks, writing my stories and my character vignettes by hand on index cards rich with ink, even using paper bags to draw out timelines of my characters’ chronologies, since I didn’t have a white board in my Oakland studio flat by the Lake. I typed on a small Macintosh Classic with the screen as wide as the palm of my hand—antiquities!

Years and years went by and I never wrote a single story as I involved myself in other activities, acquiring skills that could pay for the needs of a growing family. When I returned last year to enter into the literary World Wide Web, it felt like I had just returned from a cabin tucked away in the wilderness and had my stomach punched. I had aged. I realized I was not caught up. I looked for the editors of the journals that had published me and found a few in the industry.

But why do I mention this here and now? The MFA is programmed to set us up to pursue a certain way a life. It is no wonder it is called a terminal degree. It ends there. But once we are done and are furnished with an MFA degree which compels us to take our manuscript to another level, we are challenged by what happens in real life. For some, they stay on course. For others, they deviate due to the urgencies of life.

In the MFA, we were trained to pursue teaching careers or to aspire for the big publishing houses that would put our name in literary history. It was the Holy Grail to have your manuscript picked up by a big publishing house. Armed with an MFA—it was perceived—greases the skids for garnering the attention of the big five.

It almost seemed possible. There is hope for the writer when she sees that MFA programs are the ones who spawn the editors, teachers, and authors of our day, those same institutions that are positioned to reflect the broader world. But likewise, we can believe that the MFA programs are dooming the art of writing, while neglecting the vehicles that sustain the industry—the mass media weakening the allure of literature and deteriorating the mind that it takes to work through a story. I remember in workshop, some of the opinions of my classmates in relation to my stories were that they needed to work to read it. The prose was lush, the sentences long, and the stories were character driven. As readers, we can process our world with a fine tooth comb in order to dig more deeply into our perceptions, or we can get bored with work, and dumb down our thinking with fragments of what is here and now, and what we enjoy spontaneously and superfluously.

We can choose each time we read, to stay in the moment, to let it simmer, to let it change us. Or we can shift our gaze to the next best thing that we can readily find available anywhere.

IMG_20150703_113944pm2squareEréndira Ramírez-Ortega is co-founder and managing editor of Burning Bush Press and blogs at  Her writing has appeared in The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, Other Voices, and Calaca Review. She’s a new contributor to The Review Review and Front Porch Commons.  She lives in southern California with her husband and three children.