Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Editorial Profile: Gregory Thompson

Gregory Thompson, Fiction Editor and Managing Editor of Barn Owl Review, discusses his aesthetic goals for the journal's design, offers advice for folks submitting fiction, and represents on behalf of the MFA-free writer.

MB: As the designer for all of Barn Owl Review’s materials—from the website and t-shirts to the magazine itself—tell us a bit about your artistic vision for the journal, including the photographs that we’ve seen on the website.

GT: I feel an obligation not to over-design the journal. That is, the poems and stories in the journal shouldn’t have to fight with design elements for attention. I prefer minimalism. The design needs to stay out of the way of the work so the reader can just read.

The photos are all places that have caught my eye in and around Akron, Ohio. We’re lucky to live near a state park and I’m lucky in particular to drive to and from work each day through that park. As the seasons have changed, it seems a new photo op lurks around every bend in the road.

Once I had a handful of photos that worked, including some nice shots of the Akron Zoo’s own Barn Owl, the layouts for the website, logo, and t-shirts fell into place.

MB: Will you give us any clues about what the cover will look like? On the other hand, will you list five things that definitely will not appear on the cover of the inaugural issue of BOR?

GT: On the EVENTS page of the website there’s a picture of a ruined home that’s in the state park. It looks like maybe it burned down or something years ago. So the foundation is there. A set of stone steps. It must have been years ago because a pretty healthy crop of trees and vines and weeds have overtaken the ruins. Anyway, I’m a big fan of this sort of thing – to me it suggests the closest thing America has to true ruins, being such a young country. In another way, it suggests nature taking the land back, so to speak. So it’s got a few things going for it.

Anyway, I’ve a strong suspicion that the ruined house will feature on the cover. Maybe I’ll catch an owl there sometime. Who knows?

Five things that won’t be on the cover:
* Chairman Mao
* Proof of Intelligent Design
* My thumb obscuring the picture. At least I hope not.
* Yoda
* A well-staged case of Budweiser. Product placement is detestable, even if Budweiser is The King of Beers.

MB: Aside from your duties at BOR, what do you do for a living, and how does it influence your work on the journal?

GT: I sell ads for a business-to-business publication that covers the tunneling industry. It gives me perspective on putting a publication together and it allows me to work around writing, which is all I ever really wanted to do.

MB: The BOR editorial staff wasn’t intentionally planned as such, but it includes writers from a variety of paths (one with an MFA, one with MFA in progress, one without an MFA, one with MFA + Ph.D.). Not to single you out or anything, but how does it feel working in literary publishing outside the MFA scene? Do you have any advice for folks wondering if they can still write and edit without getting the MFA?

GT: Step one: meet and marry an up-and-coming writer. Step Two: ride his or her coattails to glory.

I don’t know that it feels odd because it’s all I know. There are some events, like AWP, which are more geared toward academics and I have occasionally felt a bit out of place but really, I’ve never been made to feel that way. It’s not like the cool kids with the initials behind their names can smell my lack of advanced education and batter me intellectually for my lunch money.

Learning to write outside of the MFA scene is something that every writer needs to do. Eventually, when the funding dries up, it’s just you and your work. No deadlines. No built-in audience whose course participation grade depends on the amount of meaningful feedback they provide to your story or poem. I wouldn’t say that MFAs don’t prepare writers for the world, because they clearly do, but I would argue that no writer can know what he or she will become until they are a few years out of a program.

In the end, building a writing life is about dedication and perseverance. While it takes such qualities to pursue an advanced degree, the process doesn’t necessarily teach one how to be dedicated or how to hold firm in the face of the inevitable rejections.

MB: Speaking of advice, after reading over a hundred fiction submissions (and counting), what suggestions do you have for folks submitting manuscripts, both regarding the stories themselves and they way that they’re presented?

GT: Send your very best work. Every journal says that, so we’re no different. Fact is, you should never submit a story for publication that you wouldn’t want to see published. The temptation is there to send out everything you’ve got, cast as wide a net as possible. While it would be great if everything is picked up, the writer must remember that once something is published, it’s out there and you can’t take it back. You’ve got to be sure something is ready to publish – ready to you – so that if you get good news, you don’t think: “Oh, man. I kind of wish I’d done that one better.”

Another thing: a new journal is not necessarily easier to get into than an established journal. New journals are still trying to build a good reputation and as such, may have to be more choosy than some of the better known pubs.

While we’re leaning in the direction of choosiness and rejection, let me say this: nobody decides to start a litmag so they can reject people. Quite the opposite. We started Barn Owl Review to publish good writing. To add to the body of work that’s already out there. We didn’t decide that it would simply be a gas to shut the door on a bunch of people. It’s not fun sending rejections. It’s a necessary evil, though. I hope that rejection notes from BOR are met with the understanding that all it means is that this piece is not right for us at this time. Now, it might not ever be right, but still, it’s not personal. I can say that we’ve rejected some work that might have been good enough, but, as mentioned above, we’re not well enough established that good enough is going in the book.

Speaking of editorial duties, I would also hope that the good folks who’ve submitted work understand that we’re reading and discussing LOTS of manuscripts. In our first two months we’ve gotten 50 or so stories each month. Let’s say each story is 10 pages long on average. That’s 500 pages of fiction. Bear in mind this is not a complaint. We’re beyond thrilled at the response and enthusiasm we’ve seen. It is a lot, though, and we’re doing our best to get through the stories.

Finally, it’s always a good idea – well, a necessity really – to read and follow the submission guidelines. Stay under the requested word count and so on. We’ve not had too much of a problem with that, but it’s worth mentioning. Speaking from experience, if I’m reading something from somebody who couldn’t bother to take the time to read the guidelines, I’m not going to spend much energy on the manuscript. If the writer couldn’t read our guidelines, why should we sweat over their work?

MB: As a writer, who have you been influenced by? What single short story best defines the genre for you, and why? Conversely, are there any writers whose work you’ve never been able to connect with, even though you admire it?

GT: Raymond Carver and Donald Barthelme mostly. Also Ron Carlson, but I haven’t read enough of him. Every time I read a Carlson story, I’ve got an overwhelming urge to write.

The story that best defines the genre is “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates. Is there a more perfect short story? Seriously?

Where to start? A writing professor told me that short stories should strive to do everything a novel does. This might sound nuts and impossible, but before you write off the notion altogether, read Oates’ story. And again. Heck, three in a row. Everything is perfectly rendered: dialogue, detail, character, and so on. The plot moves beautifully, lingering here and there when it needs to, but always charging toward its conclusion. The story picks you up, carries you along, and drops you off with a punch in the gut. You’re bleary eyed as the real world comes back into focus. Like getting really into a novel on public transport and then your stop comes and you can’t quite stand up straight because you’ve just been in another world.

Not many stories can do this. This one does.

As for writers who I haven’t been able to connect with… I don’t know. I’m not as well read as I should be and I’ve just never gotten into Faulkner. I’ve tried, but it hasn’t worked out. I take full responsibility.

MB: Finally, since the fiction section of BOR is still in the works, tell me which poem(s) you like best in the issue thus far, and why you were struck by them.

GT: Wow. Let me first say, that an impressive lineup of poets have been accepted into the premiere issue of BOR. Having read through the accepted work, I have been struck by the overall quality of what will be published. Great great stuff indeed.

Enough preamble. Cory Mesler, “It was a Test was What they Told Us.” (Now that this one’s been singled out by two of the three interviewed editors – and I’ve got a feeling DS is going to like it as well – it’s really getting some BOR-buzz.)

Anyway, Mesler’s piece is a terrific example of a story told in the perfect manner. Had he tried to stretch this one into a short story, the magic would have been gone, buried under too many words. It’s just absurd enough, just menacing enough.

I can’t think of anything other to say than: Had Donald Barthelme followed up, “The School,” with a companion piece told from the POV of a student, it would have looked like this.

Another one I enjoy is Gary McDowell’s “On the Death of Houdini.” I’ve always been a bit of a magic fan and particularly a fan of Houdini. I love how McDowell de-mystifies Houdini’s cause of death – it wasn’t, as rumored, an escape trick gone bad – but then re-mystifies it by the way he tells of Houdini’s passing. Wonderful.


Thanks, Mary. And I think I speak for everyone, editors, contributors, and readers alike, when I offer special thanks for bringing BOR into the litworld.

6 comments:

i am said...
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Ahmed Ashraf said...
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Ahmed Ashraf said...

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Ahmed Ashraf said...

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