"Send Us the Work You Love." A Chat With Jodee Stanley, Editor of Ninth Letter
Ninth Letter’s website says it best: the journal strives to present original literary writing of exceptional quality, illuminated by cutting-edge graphic design. Over the years work published in Ninth Letter has been selected for many awards anthologies including Best American Short Stories, Best American Poetry, and Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. One of the few literary journals available at your local Barnes and Noble, Ninth Letter should be required reading for anyone interested in exciting new writing. Jodee Stanly, editor and fiction editor, shared her thoughts on Ninth Letter, the role of the editor, and the importance of literature during challenging times.
Interview by Chuck Augello
There’s no shortage of literary journals. How does Ninth Letter hope to distinguish itself from other publications?
In the nearly 14 years we’ve been around, I think Ninth Letter has done a pretty good job of setting ourselves apart from other journals by the way we approach print publishing and graphic design. We strive to make each print issue of Ninth Letter an object to be appreciated visually, so that the reader can engage with the journal in multiple ways. Not many other journals that I’m aware of approach publishing in this way. Of course, we continue to showcase quality literary writing, and that is the primary function of both our print and online publishing efforts, but we want to provide our audience with an aesthetic experience that satisfies on a number of different levels.
Describe your role as editor. What’s an average “day in the life” for the editor of a literary journal?
I think every editor’s life is a little different in the way they factor their editorial responsibilities into the rest of their daily routine—for many people, editing is a volunteer effort, but I’m fortunate enough to edit Ninth Letter as part of my regular day job, which is an administrative appointment at the University of Illinois. When I’m wearing my editor’s hat (as opposed to my program director’s hat, which is the other part of my appointment) you can find me working on any number of tasks on a given day: reading submissions, copyediting stories and essays for an upcoming issue, prepping content for publishing on our website (which we update at least once a month), developing marketing initiatives, managing journal distribution, crunching budget numbers so we can plan the next year’s projects. Today, for example, after I finish this interview, I’ll be reviewing our current budget and working on a grant proposal to secure funding for our next fiscal year, then I’ll spend a couple of hours catching up on reading fiction submissions and preparing for an editorial meeting we have scheduled later this week.
Walk us through the submission process from the time a story or poem arrives at your office.
Most submissions come to Ninth Letter electronically through our online submission manager, and each submission we receive is assigned to a first reader—for the print journal it’s usually one of our creative writing graduate students, although I also get in there and read submissions as much as possible. Once the first reader has read the submission, they write a brief note about the work and give it a “yes” (meaning yes, we should discuss this further) or a “no.” The submission then goes to a second reader for a second opinion. If a submission receives two negative notes, it’s then rejected; if it receives two positive votes, it’s distributed to the staff and scheduled for discussion at the next editorial meeting. If the first two readers disagree, the submission is passed on to a third reader to break the deadlock. But in any event, a submission is guaranteed to be read by at least two people.
Do you see any recurring patterns with submissions? Are there certain character types or narrative elements that pop up too frequently?
It seems like there are always patterns that crop up in a given reading period, but they do change over time. For example, we’ve had “the year of dead parent stories” and “the year of animal abuse stories” (these trends, they are always dark), but even if we recognize that we’re getting a lot of stories or poems or essays on a recurring theme, it doesn’t mean that one or more of these can’t knock us out. So even as we joke about yet another story set at a funeral or at a bar (or at a bar after a funeral), we’re still reading them carefully and looking for the best writing we can find.
In addition to the print journal, Ninth Letter also features a web edition. How do they differ?
The print and online editions are edited by two different staffs. The print edition is put together by MFA students and creative writing faculty, while the online edition is produced by an upper-level undergraduate class, which is taught by a creative writing instructor who serves as editor for the edition. The online issues of Ninth Letter generally focus on a theme, which keeps the submission pool a bit more manageable for the readers and the faculty editor, since that staff is smaller than the staff we have for print.
Ninth Letter is produced in collaboration with the Creative Writing Program and the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. How does the collaboration work?
The collaboration centers around the print edition of the journal—the School of Art & Design offers a print production class that is centered around the production of Ninth Letter, so each semester we work with the class and its instructor to produce an issue. Once we have selected our material for publication, we hand it over to the design class at the beginning of the semester. They read everything, and then we (the editorial staff) meet with the class to discuss the works—we talk about themes, imagery, our selection process, and any number of things in relation to the stories, poems, and essays for the issue. Then we just sort of leave them alone to develop their design for the issue. They really build each issue visually out of their own response to the works we select.
My edition of the Fall/Winter 2016-2017 edition of the print journal arrived shrink-wrapped with a small pencil, and the last page features a quiz. Tell us about the design.
I can’t really tell you much about the design, other than that I think it’s really awesome. The designers pretty much have autonomy in developing the look of each issue—I give them a budget and keep tabs on the texts to make sure everything makes it through the production process without losing a stanza or something, but otherwise the design choices and executions are all handled by the design students and faculty—they’re the experts.
Ninth Letter is one of the few literary journals available at my local Barnes & Noble. How do you manage your distribution?
We’re distributed to B&N and other bookstores nationally by Ingram Periodicals. We manage subscriptions in house, and we also sell individual copies through our website.
Climate change, gross inequality, terrorism, war, an increase in disturbing public rhetoric—in short, the world feels like a mess. What role does literature play in helping people navigate through difficult times?
Literature teaches us to think about others and about the world around us, but even more so, it teaches us to feel, to empathize. Reading literature is such an intimate act—as a reader, you are effectively entering the mind of another person and experiencing the world through that person’s eyes. A tendency to fear, to dismiss, and to hold oneself separate from others has allowed our world to devolve to the point we’re at now—only by opening ourselves up to each other and recognizing each other’s humanity and individual experiences can we begin to come together and save ourselves (and the planet). Literature is a constant reminder that there are ways of thinking that might be different from our own, but that are worth considering, exploring, and respecting.
Finally, what advice would you give to a writer hoping to be published in your journal?
Every editor says “send us your best work,” but I prefer to say, send us the work you love. At Ninth Letter, we value technical skill, sure, but what we are more interested in is writing that shows emotional investment. Did you feel driven to write this particular story? Did this poem spring from an image that you just couldn’t get out of your head? We want to feel that urgency in a piece of writing—we want to love it as much as you do.
Chuck Augello lives in New Jersey with his wife, dog, three cats, and several unnamed squirrels who live in the back yard. His work has appeared in One Story, Smokelong Quarterly, Word Riot, Juked, A Lonely Riot, and other fine places. A contributing editor for Cease, Cows, he publishes The Daily Vonnegut, featuring interviews, essays, and trivia about the work of Kurt Vonnegut.