Nothing is More Exciting Than Finding a New Voice
Hayden’s Ferry Review, a key player in the international literary community for nearly twenty-five years, publishes both emerging and established artists in a journal that celebrates the unbreakable bond between art and culture. HFR publishes both written and visual art, and its home is the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University.
Interview by Renee Beauregard Lute
Like any conscientious interviewer, I did some research before typing up these questions. Not only are you the managing editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review, you are the managing editor of Marginalia and Word of Mouth, all at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University. You also teach at ASU, and you write. This has got to be an overwhelming amount of work. How on earth do you keep from spinning out?
Actually, I think I am spinning out! I don’t get as much sleep as I should and luckily my cat is very independent (she’s not, though. She wakes me up in the middle of the night to meow expletives in my face.) I guess part of the answer to this question is that I like being busy. I’m the kind of person who—if you give me too much time off—next thing I know, I’m calling out of work, eating too much peppermint bark and watching every episode ever of Restaurant Impossible. Twice. So, I stay regimented, which—I’ve discovered, in a very adult way—is so helpful to me. I work a regular 9-5 job. I teach class (at ASU and a community college this semester). I write on my lunch break. I plan time with my friends. Sunday night is bowling league. So it all works out. Most of the time. Sometimes you also just have to give stuff up. (I was a long distance runner for exactly one semester, and I have an apartment full of vintage clothes I’m supposed to, someday, get up into an Etsy store). I guess maybe I also have a bit of ADD, huh? I like doing lots of things.
What are you writing now?
I’ve taken a hiatus with my novel. I love that thing and then I hate it, which is probably totally normal, but is kind of making me crazy. So I’m back to stories for a little bit, and long overdue. It’s, quite honestly, been hard for me to make time to work on my own stuff. My transition from MFA to “real world writer” has taken many years. That’s a little bit embarrassing but it’s true. Partially because writing is the hardest thing in the world and so very important to me, and those two things combined make me super hard on myself. And I have to come to work and show up to class or I won’t get paid, so those things are easier to prioritize. But I’m getting better at just, you know, writing. I started a writing group with six friends a few months ago that is part long-distance workshop and part gambling ring. We give money, we suggest exercises, we vote on each other’s work, and prizes are awarded. So far that’s working. Plus, I have super-super talented friends so the group has got me excited again.
How is your own writing influenced by your involvement with Hayden’s Ferry Review?
This is a tough question. Partially because part of the answer is most likely pretty obvious. And partly because I probably don’t even consciously recognize some of the ways I’m influenced. I’m a fiction writer, so I primarily spend time with prose submissions, and I would say my most common feedback on stories that get declined is that they’re “familiar.” When you spend a lot of time reading submissions, you look for something that you’ve never seen before. It’s hard to describe that familiarity because it took me years of reading HFR submissions to feel comfortable saying it. So when I sit down to write, I’m aiming for an aggressive specificity in character details and motivation and history and story. I also just don’t want to be bored. I’m at the point now where I can point to my own work and say, “Yawn” or “Trying too hard” or “Stop trying to be clever.” That editorial eye is helpful but, you know, sometimes you have to turn it off to just get something on the page. And that can be hard.
HFR is all about a kind of marriage between art—both visual and written—and culture. Let’s pretend we are at a snooty wine and cheese party, and I swirl my glass and ask you, “Which comes first, Beth Staples? Art or culture? Which mirrors the other?” How would you respond?
“You dragged me away from the cheese for this, you maniac?” [Also, why have I never been invited to a snooty wine and cheese party??]
Okay, okay. Art reflects culture reflects art, right? Partially I read and like art because it teaches me new ways of being in my own body and of being in the world. So that affects my behavior, and human behavior affects (is) culture. But art is also in response to what we see going on in the world around us. It’s like some crazy loop! I don’t know how to answer this question intelligently. Can I come back to it?
HFR publishes both emerging and established writers. What advice would you give to an emerging writer who hopes to have his or her work published in your journal?
Every journal would probably say, “Read us!” That’s true, please read us. But don’t read us to mimic the work we’ve published. Read us because you care about the world of writing and literature and want to be part of that community and you learn so much from reading. So, you don’t have to read us. But for godsakes, read! Also, listen to yourself. I’m big on this. Follow the things that interest you and excite you. You know: be you! Some artist should make a motivational poster for the rest of us that makes that look really cool.
I’m teaching a “Forms of Fiction” class at ASU this semester, and I gave my students this assignment that I’m pretty excited about. (I’m using the same assignment for a story I’m writing now.) The first step is to make a list of art and media you love, top ten. Your favorite book, blog, painting, photograph, movie, TV show, aphorism, prayer, birthday card, fortune cookie fortune, whatever, whatever. Study this list and think about each thing: what IS it that you love so much about it (the answer can be many things). Now, make a mash-up story that invokes pieces--ideas, themes, character traits, formal elements, mood, scenario, subject, etc.--from at least four things on the list.
My students are studying form, so part of their assignment is to steal a formal element from a piece of art/media that isn’t fiction. The stories that have been turned in for workshop are kind of blowing me away. You already know that I love Restaurant Impossible and vintage clothing, but I also love the Final Destination movies (I know, I know) and the board game Clue and fantasy football, and Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy. Finding ways to write stories that integrate my various concerns/interests is really exciting to me. I see students compartmentalize sometimes. You know, “This is my Serious Attempt at Short Fiction.” I love being moved by fiction, but I also love being entertained by it, thrilled by its imagination and language. So I love to see writers taking advantage of different media in their work, finding ways to make the world of fiction expand. Maybe that’s part of the answer to the cheese party question? Or I’ve had too much wine.
Some serious writing heavyweights have been published in HFR. (John Updike, Raymond Carver, Gloria Naylor, Tess Gallagher, Allen Ginsberg, and many others.) If you could publish any living writer in your next issue, who would it be?
Jose Saramago died, but can I still say him? He lives in my heart.
If you could play croquet with any living writer, who would it be?
Kelly Link. And I’d like her to design the croquet course. And invite George Saunders.
What are you reading?
My bedside: The Aimee Bender story “Bad Return” that came out not too long ago in One Story, Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson and A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes which, through no deliberate action, keeps ending up at the bottom of the pile.
If you were to go on a very long and lonely trip to Catalonia, and you could only bring three literary journals with you, which three would you bring?
I get the whole backlist, right? Ninth Letter. The Paris Review. One Story.
HFR tends to vary quite a bit from issue to issue, always looking for something a bit different. Is this because of the changing editorial staff, or because of our ever-changing cultural climate?
Both. Our editors do change every year, but of course we want to push each issue into some new territory. As the constant staff member, it’s important to me that the editors are familiar with HFR’s history, that they’re trying to do their own thing but stay in line with who we are. That’s one of my on-going goals: to both help define who we are and to push that definition. That can be hard with a staff that turns over, but I think the fact that you’ll always get something new and different is what makes HFR so fun and exciting.
What is your favorite kind of submission to HFR?
Is “a really great one” not specific enough? Gosh, I don’t know. That’s the thing. We’re waiting for it, every second. If I could describe it already, it wouldn’t be great. Also, we love writers who haven’t been published much (or at all). Almost everything we publish is unsolicited, and nothing is more exciting than finding a voice you haven’t heard before. And then writing to the writer to tell them how great they are.
Your least favorite kind?
The kind where you can tell the writer hasn’t bothered to read the guidelines. Or contemporary poetry. So: rhyming poems about the black soul of death. Entire fan fiction novels. On the one hand, I appreciate that writers are trying to find a market, and I know that’s a hard thing to do. On the other hand, we try to make it fairly clear the neighborhood where our aesthetic lives. And I wish more writers felt a part of the writing communities where they try to place work. By that I mean (again): read books and literary journals if you want to publish books or be published by literary journals. So those submissions are often a reminder of that gap between writer and publisher, the lack of communication or investment that can exist between those two worlds. And it makes me sad sometimes. Another of my goals at HFR is to try to bridge that gap a bit. We try to be very open with our social media, respond to emails from writers quickly, give feedback on submissions when we can—that kind of thing.
What is the best piece of writing advice you have received?
When Bob Hicok was at ASU last year, he gave a talk where he said (I wrote it down): “I think we’re inherently creative beings. So much of doing it is getting out of the way of what we’re capable of.” He talks about “following” the things that interest you. I have to keep reminding myself of that, to do that, to get out of the way. It’s comforting, right?
Beth Staples received her MFA degree in fiction from Arizona State University in 2007, where she taught composition and creative writing before joining the Piper Center for Creative Writing staff as Publications Specialist and Managing Editor of Hayden's Ferry Review. Her work has appeared in The Portland Review and Phoebe. She likes to bowl, see live music, eat pickled things, play fantasy football and feed her fat cat, Starla.
Renee Beauregard Lute is the Reviews Editor for The Review Review. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, The Northern New England Review, Roar Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and two cats, and is eagerly awaiting the birth of her first daughter, due in May.