"A Proud, Impressive History and a Strong Present"
Andrew Malan Milward is the editor of Mississippi Review and Assistant Professor of English at University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was awarded the Juniper Prize in Fiction for his collection of stories Agriculture Hall of Fame.
Interview by Robin Kalinich
Please describe yourself and your path to Mississippi Review (MR).
Well, I’m a 6’1, 175-lb Sagittarius whose hobbies include…. Oh, sorry. I forgot what site I was on for a moment. Let’s see. After my MFA, I did what a lot of us do, tried to scrape together jobs and opportunities that leave, or offer, some time to write. This made me move around a good bit, which was fun but stressful—always trying to patch together the next thing. I did some strange and wonderful things. I taught in a prison. I worked with adults with developmental disabilities. For a while I faked my way through a stint as a JV tennis coach, a position I earned by re-reading the tennis academy sections of Infinite Jest before my interview with the school’s athletic director. I was also fortunate to receive support from some generous institutions along the way.
Then two years ago I was offered the opportunity to serve as a visiting writer at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, which publishes MR. Knowing the history of the program and the magazine, I was honored. I was living in San Francisco at the time and the thought of going to the Deep South for a year was intriguing, kind of like going on an extended UN fact-finding mission. On the first day of class when I introduced myself to my students and told them I’d moved to Hattiesburg from the Bay Area, these kind-hearted souls asked with concerned, meaningful facial expressions if I was doing okay in a manner that suggested if you’re freaked out, you know you can talk to me, brother. But the funny thing was that almost from the start I felt completely at home in Mississippi, thanks to the welcoming generosity and kindness of both the academic community at USM and the larger community of Hattiesburg. It was a good place for me to be, which is why I was excited to drop the ‘visiting’ from my title and have the chance to settle down here for the long term. It’s a really good fit for me.
When offered, I jumped at the chance to become editor of MR, and then I got very nervous about the enormous shoes I’d stepped into. Frederick Barthelme, Julia Johnson, and Angela Ball—such wonderfully talented writers and editors. I recall once, right before taking the stage to give a reading, when a very dear friend saw how nervous I was and said to me, “I love you. You’re gonna do fine. Just don’t fuck up.” That’s something I’ve had to tell myself with some regularity in the year since I took over as editor. Thankfully things are going really well.
What do you consider to be the primary strengths of Mississippi Review?
A proud, impressive history and a strong present, both of which prize aesthetic excellence in writing and design. An issue of MR should be an art object, both in terms what it contains and how it does so. This is difficult to do when your budget and staff are tiny, but Frederick Barthelme was an absolute genius at that, and it’s something I strive to continue.
You are relatively new as editor to this journal. Can you describe any changes that you foresee to the content or scope of the publication?
Sure, of course, in terms of scope the goal is to reach more readers and that means having to communicate the way so many people do now via social media and increasing our online presence through advertising, something MR had little of when I took over. So we’re working on that. However, the primary goal before anything else is to produce a great magazine twice a year. Content and design come first. MR has always had a unique sense of design and I’m trying to honor that while updating it. Our winter issue (40.3) and summer issue (41.1&2) look like nothing MR has ever done, which is intentional. I’m not interested in the magazine looking like another sober literary journal. I’m interested in making it look interesting to others so they’ll pick it up and read what’s inside, if only because they’re wondering, What the hell is this?
In terms of content, the goal is to publish the best work we can find by new, emerging, and established writers. I plan to keep the twice-a-year publishing format consisting of a contest issue and one issue of solicited material, which has worked so well for us over the years. In the past, some of the solicitation issues were built around a theme (we had an issue about the history of literary magazines that was just expanded into an excellent book called Paper Dreams by Travis Kurowski, one about politics, one dedicated to the prose poem, another to Hamlet, and many, many others), so that’s something I’ll likely try.
MR is known for its eclectic mix of both established and newer, emerging writers. How is this balance maintained while not accepting unsolicited manuscripts? Do you anticipate opening up submissions at any point in the future?
We do accept unsolicited manuscripts, but only for our contest issue, which is where we get a chance to publish many new and emerging writers. We just closed the new contest issue and there are many writers I expect to be following in the future while bragging about how I got to publish them early in their careers. David Armstrong, Emma Duffy-Comparone, and Caitlin Cowan come to mind immediately in that regard.
As I said, I plan to keep the other issue solicitation only. I suspect there is some controlling, quasi-fascist part of my psyche that likes it this way, but the truth is we are a staff of three. I’m fortunate to have two very talented and dedicated associate editors in Elena Tomorowitz and Allison Campbell, but a fully open submission policy is beyond our scope at the moment. Thankfully, as The Review Review site so wonderfully and helpfully illustrates there is no shortage of great magazines that accept unsolicited manuscripts.
Tell me about your audience.
They’re incredibly loyal and astute readers. Most have been subscribers for many years and come from all over the country, and, indeed, the world. Some people think we’re a niche, southern-only magazine like the Oxford American, which I love, but that’s not at all the case for MR. We aren’t region-specific; we want only the best writing we can find, and that’s what our readers expect. They’re helpful too. They let me know when I’ve pleased them and when I can do better.
What challenges and opportunities present themselves to MR as a result of self-publishing and social media marketing?
The challenges are there and they are very real. So are the opportunities of course. The main challenge is the constant revolutionizing of technology. It’s weird to think about. I graduated high school in 1998. Email was kind of a novelty—I didn’t have an account until I went to college and the university made every student have one. I didn’t have a cellphone either. That was 15 years ago. Think of all that’s happened. The other day I watched my two-year-old nephew who can barely hold a spoon play around with an IPad at the dinner table as he ate and suddenly found myself mentally composing the initial lines for an epic poem about my Hotmail account, an elegy for the antenna on my first cellphone that on occasion I actually employed, extending it to the heavens in the hopes of better reception. But I digress. Here’s what I mean: yes, there’s a pain-in-the-ass factor of keeping up with the ever-evolving ways people communicate, but the plus side is that you do in fact keep in touch with them as well as possibly reaching new and different readers. Plus it’s usually much easier than when I used to have my carrier pigeon Frank, currently convalescing, do all the heavy lifting. He sends his regards.
With the emergence of social media, do you sense a turning away from literary interests? Shorter attention spans? Poor grammar?
I think it spells the death of the written word.
Writing and publishing are tough businesses. How do you instill a fortitude and deep love for the craft of writing in your students and help them to prepare for rejection?
Yeah, that’s tricky, because they are tough—the business and the craft side of writing—but in different ways. I once heard a very successful writer say that 90% of writing is rejection and isolation, and there’s something to that, though it also grossly distorts the picture. The key is to focus on the challenges of the craft side as much as humanly possible over those of the business side. Most writers I suspect, myself included, have had to learn this the hard way. The hope is that when someone does learn that lesson their relationship to writing and why they do this sometimes crazy-seeming thing recalibrates and becomes healthier. That is to say they learn/remember that the real reward of writing is being engaged in the sustained, regular process of doing it. I’m flirting dangerously with Confucian Ode territory, but that should be put on a cross-stitch sampler and given to every incoming MFA student.
It’s easier and sometimes more exhilarating working through the despair-jubilation dialectic of sending your work out, of trying to get an adda boy from the universe. That can be an important validation as well as of great practical import, in terms of getting your work noticed or building a publishing history to be viable for a teaching position or some other form of writing-related employment. I don’t mean to say it’s not important, because it certainly is. You have to be aware of the realities of the business side of writing, even if it makes your skin crawl. But it’s also complete and utter death when it becomes the focus and more important than the patient, unsexy work of making yourself sit in the chair day after day. That’s where the challenges of the craft side come in: developing the discipline to make yourself cultivate what Flannery O’Connor called “the habit of art.”
The reality is that art is hard and most people new to it don’t want it to be that way. They want the version of being an artist that we get driven into our head in every form of media, wherein they (feel free to substitute “Andrew Malan Milward at 21” for “they”) fart around in a café drinking, drugging, propositioning people with whom they’d like to have casual but passionate intercourse, all the while waiting for inspiration to strike, and the one time a month or year when that happens is when they go make art or write. It makes for good, titillating film but bears little resemblance to the discipline and hard work it takes to actually be an artist.
But it’s not all as Sovietly grim and un-fun as I’m making it sound. It’s the opposite in fact. Once you cultivate the habit of art you realize the bullshit, romanticized version of being an artist that saw the artist as a passive vessel waiting around for inspiration/the unconscious/the muse is actually in fact romanticized bullshit. We have far more control over the creative process than we’re led to believe, but it means making yourself sit in the chair and weathering the few minutes of absolute terror as the cursor blinks back at you, taunting, while every excuse not to write shoots through your head. If you can do that, then you will find a way back into whatever it was you were working on the day before or a portal into something new, I promise, and more often than not you will feel that feeling we mean when we talk about being inspired.
Some days are better than others, don’t get me wrong. Sometimes you’ll advance a hard-won paragraph. Other days you’ll look up at the clock and four hours have gone by and you’ve written several pages and you’ll get up knowing that even if the rest of the day goes to shit it won’t be able to take away or diminish the pleasure and satisfaction of the time you spent writing.
The point is that something will happen if you sit there and doing that day after day, the sustained and patient world-building of your preferred writing genre, is the real reward of writing and it’s where your focus should be. This is what I tell my students and then they say, “Yeah, but how do I get an agent?”
How does your life as an editor inform your life as an author? Do you feel it is crucial for an editor to have been a writer himself?
I think being a writer definitely helps me to be a better editor, especially in terms of communicating with writers about their work, simply because I’ve been there myself. I know what it’s like to get an anonymous “Dear Writer” form letter rejection to a piece I submitted eight months ago. I don’t think it’s necessary, however, for an editor to be a writer. A lover of literature, absolutely, but a producer of such, no.
It’s funny, I’m remembering now that my basketball coach in college, Bob Campbell, was and continues to be one of the winningest active and all-time coaches in Division III history and he never played ball at a serious level. He still knew the game way better than we players did, and we only questioned his knowledge in moments of excruciating physical pain. The choice time to doubt his authority and aptitude was after running till I puked. That’s when many player-mutiny fantasies were concocted.
The Agricultural Hall of Fame is set in Kansas, while you're firmly entrenched in the south at The University of Southern Mississippi. Please discuss the role that setting and culture play in your writing.
Place is central in my work. I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and though I moved away when I was 12, Kansas has always been home, the place to which I return both in my life and in my writing. In part this is because it’s where I’m from, which is to say, what I know. But there’s a lot of Kansas in the book that is very different from my experience growing up in Lawrence. So in some sense writing about Kansas is writing about what’s familiar and about something unknown or strange, both of which strike me as attempts to understand where I come from, what legacies I inherit, to bear witness to my home’s noble and ignoble instincts and to acknowledge my culpability in both the good and the bad. Too often in recent years it’s the less noble instincts that are visible.
At times, with the political dominance of reactionary and regressive cultural conservatism, Kansas seems like the meth-lab Winnebago of American democracy, but it wasn’t always that way and I have hope for a return of the sympathies that gave rise to the abolitionists, who fought bravely and bloodily to make Kansas a free state, and of the People’s Party, the radical agrarians who were fighting against corporate hegemony in 1890, as well as of the Progressive-era Republicans, which didn’t used to be an oxymoron, and socialists of the first half of last century.
I think part of why I feel so at home in Hattiesburg is that it reminds me in many ways of Lawrence, and like Kansas Mississippi has an interesting, rich, and troubled history. Hopefully, I’ll soon have Kansas out of my system and I can get a chance to understand better my new home through writing about it.
Describe the perfect MR piece.
One that makes sustained, near-tantric love to my heart and brain.
What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Don’t listen to me. Well, no, listen to me at least for a second. Read widely and deeply. That will teach you more than anything/anyone else. You have to learn how to read with one foot firmly sunk in the pleasure of the text (the reason all of us enjoy reading so much), but you have to have the other foot outside the text, analyzing how the writer is making you feel what you’re feeling. Sorry, my foot metaphor is becoming a little unwieldy and overwrought. But the point is that you need to learn to read like a writer and doing that doesn’t just mean enjoying what you’re reading—it means also sustaining an almost meta-commentary on how the writer is consciously shaping your experience. That’s how you learn helpful lessons.
Oh, one last thing: if you’re a fiction writer, make sure you definitely read poetry.
What else would you like to discuss in this interview?
What happened to those questions about KU basketball you promised?
Robin Kalinich is an artist, a writer, & a chemist. When she’s not interviewing editors for The Review Review, she’s writing short stories, poetry, and copy for the back of cereal boxes.