"Literature Ought to Burn Us and Stay in Our Blood." A Chat with Justin Lawrence Daugherty of Sundog Lit
Justin Lawrence Daugherty is the author of Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise (Passenger Side Books)–is the Managing/Founding Editor of Sundog Lit. He lives in Omaha, Nebraska (for now). He is working on a novella, Now, the Destruction of Days. His work appears in some places such as The Normal School, The Collagist, Barrelhouse, Necessary Fiction, Hobart, and elsewhere. He forgets to update his site a lot and tweets @jdaugherty1081 far too much.
Interview by DeMisty Billinger
How would you define a sundog, and how did you come to that word?
A sundog is an atmospheric phenomenon that causes the appearance of a ring of light around the sun, often called a phantom sun. Living in the north woods of Marquette, Michigan, I had encountered the word often. But, it made sense to me as a title, too--the idea being that literature should be both a literary artifact and should be incendiary and scorching and entertaining. The entertaining part of the literary, the thing that we hope really makes a work burn, is the phantom ring of light.
“Sundog Lit publishes writing that scorches the earth.” Could you define this further or lead us to an example?
We get this question often. To me, this means that literature ought to burn into us and stay in our blood. That reading a poem or essay or story should almost burn us in its radiance. We want active movement and vibrant language. We want action. One could look at Tom McAllister's "On the Way to the Killing Spree the Shooter Stops for Pizza" or Christine Hyung-Oak Lee's "Date and Time of Loss" as recent examples. I've said before that suburban fiction--while often done really well--isn't quite for us. We want words that are always on the verge of spontaneous combustion (am I using too many fire metaphors? Probably.).
Explain, too, what is working class today and why you find it still important for literature?
I guess I state that because I feel that's where the story comes from: the people working hard for barely anything, who lose and lose often, and who feel so much from where they find themselves. I also think of the journal as working class: independent, self-supported, grassroots. We're all busy and working and I have all this residual passion that I throw into Sundog. We do it because we love, because we need to do it.
Can you talk about how you balance your own writing and editing a journal?
Oh, god. People say I do too much. It's probably true. I barely have time to play video games or read for pleasure. I try to set morning time for writing, and I try to get some time in, even just a little bit, as often during a week as I can. I'm in a Ph.D. program and teach, edit two other journals, and I am trying to get a press, Jellyfish Highway, launched, too.
I’m impressed with the diversity in the latest issue: from Justin Brouckaert prose poem to the almost-traditional “The Siege Ends, and Prospekts Begin Again” by Emily Grelle, the short story “Almost Flamboyant” by Rijn Collins and the aforementioned “On the Way to the Killing Spree the Shooter Stops for Pizza” by McAllister. Can you speak to the varying styles and subjects in a journal with such a precise aesthetic?
I think that while I try to define what scorched-earth literature is or means, it's hard to know until you see it. I hope that when you read an issue, an idea of an aesthetic comes across. What pulls the work we publish together, for me, is that there's a lasting quality to each of these (and hopefully everything we publish). I hope when you read a few pieces or an entire issue, you're left with an impression. While the scorched-earth dynamic is seemingly precise, I think it's also fluid. The precision is in the impression, so the forms and styles of pieces may be vastly different.
This is your sixth issue, so I’m assuming you have lots of submissions in each genre. What frustrates you now in individual submissions (such as formatting or style) and what makes you downright giddy?
We also just launched our (Letters from) the Road theme issue, guest edited by the amazing Jill Talbot. We do get a lot of submissions. Sometimes I am greedy and still want more. We just launched our first contests in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and will be publishing a chapbook in Issue 8. I don't know that I'm particularly frustrated by anything in format or style (until it comes to setting an issue and a uniquely formatted poem causes a headache with HTML). I guess I'm personally frustrated by prose or poetry where nothing happens. I need to state that I definitely never ever want to see submissions ever again that glorify or romanticize (in some way) violence against women. I don't know why we receive this or why it's being written, but there it is. What makes me really excited is just vibrant brilliance. When I read a piece that just completely rocks me. When we read Tom McAllister's story, I had to slow down to force myself to really read it again to make sure it was great. And, it was and is. I will say that I get a little nerd-excited when I see a video game piece or something related to superheroes. I can't help it.
Can you talk about the Games Issue?
Sure! The GAMES issue was our first theme issue. When I thought I wanted to do a theme issue, it was the first thing that came to mind. And, naturally, I thought if I was going to have a guest editor, it needed to be Brian Oliu. That issue came together so brilliantly. We weren't sure what we would get, but the depth and breadth of the work in that issue still astonishes me. From work on basketball to Zelda to Game of Thrones, there is so much there. I wish we could have published a thousand pieces.
If I was a curious reader who has not yet had the pleasure of reading Sundog Lit, what quintessential story, poem, and piece of nonfiction would you have me read from your archives? And can you give a reason for each suggestion?
Oh, gosh, this will be tough.
In nonfiction, I'd say Angela Palm's "Corn Tag, or I am a Person Who Kissed a Murderer"--for its brutal and heartbreaking qualities. I still remember the awe I had when I read it in the queue.
In fiction, since I already mentioned Tom's piece, I am still so in love with Lindsay Herko's "Claudia and the Fish-Exhausted Mother" from Issue Three. But, really, there's also Eric Thompson's "Make a Racket" from Issue Four.
What is the selection process like at Sundog Lit?
We have two readers on everything. There's a discussion on everything that is at least a "maybe" for us. Everyone's really engaged and we all have such similar tastes, it seems. I let the editors make their own decisions on things and only really come in to add my vote if they ask me. We never head into an issue with a set number of pieces in mind or a particular style. If we love something, we love it.
What one thing should a writer know before submitting to Sundog Lit?
As cliché as it is: read the journal. Not only are we publishing consistently-great work, but there's an aesthetic at work, and not everything is going to be a fit.
Is there a question I should have asked? Please, ask and answer it here!
I don't think you missed anything, but I will mention that our contests are open for submissions until January 1st, 2015, and winners in each genre receive $100. Our Issue 8 will be our first print issue and in it we will publish the contest winners, a chapbook, and a whole lot of rad work. Writers should flood our queue with their beautiful words: sundoglit.submittable.com/submit.
DeMisty D. Bellinger has an MFA from Southampton College and studied writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she earned a Ph.D in English. She tries to read from at least two lit journals each week. She lives in Wisconsin where she teaches English and has a little family of twin preschoolers and one husband.