Note: Jeanne Leiby, sadly, died in a car accident in Louisiana Tuesday. This interview was conducted over the past couple of weeks, and I scheduled the post Monday, in advance of a very busy Tuesday, in which the news of her death didn’t reach me. The post appeared this morning. I hope it can stand in some small way as a representation of the kind of writer, editor and teacher that she was.
Jeanne Leiby has been an editorial force at several American literary journals, most recently as the editor of The Southern Review, as well as a writer and teacher. She’s also someone who’s been important to me as a writer, because she published a couple of my stories, which will probably make me grateful to her for life.
I noticed her most recently over her post following up on the VIDA breakdown of acceptances/submissions by women in publishing – she took the initiative to analyze TSR’s submission and acceptances and posted the answers online. I wanted to ask her about that and other matters of writing and editing, and she graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.
What’s your idea of a well-edited magazine? Is it simply great individual pieces, or do the pieces need to work together in some fashion?
We accept individual poems, stories, and essays because the work itself challenges, compels, intrigues, and surprises. But we do keep our eyes on the way each issue develops. Because we have the luxury of publishing four volumes a year, and we’re filling two or three issues in advance, we can move things around so the issues as also as strong as they can be. Unless we are actively filling a special topic issue, we don’t look to design thematic links. In fact, sometimes it’s the opposite. For example, if we have two brilliant first person stories both told from a child’s point of view, I might separate them across two issues. But sometimes themes emerge, ones we didn’t see until after the issue has been set. Our autumn 2011 issue was a very wet issue. There was water everywhere—streams, ponds, oceans, bathtubs. We didn’t plan that, and nor is that the reason I picked antique nautical charts of the Gulf Coast for the cover and art insert. That just sort of happened.
You’ve published stories in many journals, and your collection of short stories, Downriver, won the Doris Bakwin prize and was published in 2006. How does being an editor affect your life as a writer, and vice-versa?
I’m a writer, editor, and teacher—but not always in that order. I read thousands of manuscript pages a year, and the reality is that sometimes, at the end of the day, I feel like I’m out of words. I’ve read them, edited them, typed them, talked them, and taught them. But this is the reality for most of us who write and work in academia. I’m no different. What do teaching a class, editing a journal, writing a story, tending to an old wood boat, and tending to children have in common? Their needs will expand to fill the time you give them. My time management is getting better. I try to carve out one day a week where I’m a writer first and foremost. I succeed about 50% of the time.
The Southern Review marked its 75th anniversary last year, and it has a firmly established place in the country’s literary tradition. In recent years, you’ve expanded into blogs, tweeting, trying to create online communities – a more current, continuous presence. How is the relationship between the physical journal and the ongoing web presence developing?
I’m very excited about the expanded presence of TSR online. I’ve always seen TSR and all literary journals as more than semi-annual or quarterly publications. They are dynamic communities, and they always have been. For readers, when the new issue arrives in the mailbox, they know they are going to make new friends, find new writers they are passionate about, work that moves them, new work from old acquaintances. For writers, it’s the same thing. They get the thrill of seeing who they get to share real estate with. The online possibilities are endless. Now, with our Facebook page and especially our blog, we can make the community even more dynamic, and something that has relevance beyond the quarterly print journal.
What really makes you sit up and take notice of a story, a poem or an essay? Beyond the idea of excellence, what qualities are you looking for and why?
This is a great question and an extremely difficult one to answer. I look for work that surprises me. I know this sounds vague, and I know it probably doesn’t do anything to help writers. But it is the truth. I read such a high volume that I do see the same stories and poems and essays over and over again—stories that address domestic disputes/divorce/affairs; poems that praise birds/ducks/trees, essays that look at the self/just the self/nothing but the self. It can become a bit numbing. But then, I’ll open and envelope and something about that first paragraph or stanza makes me sit up and take notice. What is that something? I don’t know if I can identify it, but I know I can feel it.
By the way, we do publish stories about domestic disputes, poems about birds, and essays about the self. What distinguishes these pieces, without question, is prose quality. Damn good writing, word by word.
You’ve worked at several great journals (including Black Warrior Review as fiction editor and the Florida Review as editor-in-chief). At the risk of being too broad, how do you see the state of literary journals today, given changing technologies, shrinking budgets, and other challenges?
TSR has taken a forty percent budget cut since I began in January 2008. I’ve watched great journals like Shenandoah and Tri-Quarterly flame out or get transformed into shadows of their former selves. I’ve seen university presses shrink and disappear. It’s scary. But I’ve also seen the birth of some new MFA and PhD programs. I’ve seen the number of applicants to LSU’s graduate program almost triple. I believe the audience for great contemporary literary works of art is growing, not shrinking. The changing technologies are going to change the way that literary magazines do business—there is no doubt. Ebooks are going to change things. But I don’t think they are going to decrease the number of readers who want a book to hold. In fact, it could be just the opposite. Ebooks may be a way to expand our audience to people who didn’t know they enjoyed reading literary magazines.
With decreased budgets, there is less money to advertise. In fact, advertising was the first thing we cut. But we do more advertising now online, we get our name and news to more people through Facebook and Twitter than we ever could through a paper ad or a direct mail campaign. What’s sad about this, of course, is that other great venues like Poets and Writers and The AWP Chronicle—very important publications—no longer get our ad dollars.
After the VIDA post on gender equality in publishing, you undertook a review of your submissions and acceptances, and then wrote about it. You found a 60-40 split favoring men in acceptances – and the same divide in submissions. Were you surprised by this? Have you had time to develop some guesses about why, as you put it, there isn’t more parity in the slush pile?
I was pleased that—in terms of gender—what we publish reflects what we receive in the slush pile. I was a little surprised by the consistency over time and over genre. I don’t know why women submit to TSR at a lower (or is it slower?) rate than men. Many theories have been tossed about on blogs, in magazines and newspapers: women don’t take rejection as well (I reject that argument); women have babies (they do, yes); women writers who are on the tenure track or in academic departments are either expected to do or are willing to do more service and committee work (I don’t know about that).
These numbers made me sit back and reflect on my own career. There was one truth that struck me—I never had a female mentor, at least not in the world of writing and publishing and barely in the world of academia. Maybe I never had a strong female mentor because in my younger years, I didn’t know how to network. Maybe women aren’t as good at networking.
On a small scale, I’m trying to do something about that here at LSU. I’ve set up a program that I’m calling “Women of Words” for advanced undergraduate and graduate female fiction writers. We meet once every two weeks and have a simple half hour conference call from a woman who has made it in this business of writing and publishing: agents, editors, directors of presses, writers, etc. I want these talented young women writers to graduate with their eyes wide open.
Two of my favorite all-time phone calls were from you, out of the blue, accepting stories of mine. I wonder if you always make a point to call, and whether that’s a great part of the job – making people’s days (or weeks or months) like that?
That’s right, Shawn! You’re one of my crossover writers. I called you when I was editing The Florida Review and I called you as editor of The Southern Review. Yes, I call. I call everybody. I call people sometimes to tell them that I’m not accepting their work but that it came really close and I’d like to talk to them about it.
The reality of my job is that I spend a lot of time rejecting things. When something surprises me so much that I want to accept it, I want to commit my time and the time of my staff into making sure it’s perfect, I want to talk to the person behind the words. In the moment of the phone call, I love them, they love me, and we get to celebrate the work.
I call because I really do believe The Southern Review is a community.
What books made you want to be a writer?
Wow, that’s the hardest question of all. I was surrounded by books growing up, and I’ve always been an avid reader. It would be easy now to say I always wanted to be a writer, but I don’t think it’s true. When I was young, I wanted to be an art teacher.
I grew up downriver Detroit, a pretty typically unbeautiful suburb of an ugly city. I didn’t think I’d ever have anything to write about. But then my sophomore English professor at the University of Michigan lent me her copy of Not This Pig by Philip Levine. It changed my life.
To read past interviews, go here.