"So Inexplicably Beautiful or True"
Suzannah Windsor Freeman is the founding/managing editor of Writeitsideways.com and Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing, and an associate editor for Anderbo. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Grist: The Journal for Writers, Sou'wester, Anderbo, Saw Palm, Best of the Sand Hill Review, the Danforth Review, and more. She is a dual citizen of Canada and Australia, and currently lives in a sleepy seaside town with her husband and four children. Check out her eBook, The Busy Mom's Guide to Writing.
Interview by Khalid Al Hariri
I know that this whole thing was a dream to you. How did the dream come true?
I'd always wanted to be a writer, but it wasn't until I quit teaching to stay home with my kids that I really had the opportunity to do something about it. I created a blog, Write It Sideways, which over the past four years has evolved to include a team of contributing writers and several thousand subscribers. I also started getting some of my short fiction published and focused on gaining editorial experience. The combination of being a full-time mom and building a writing and editing career from home has been incredibly rewarding and challenging, and I'm always looking toward the next step in that journey.
Starting a literary journal has been at the back of my mind for ages because I've become really attached to short fiction, and also because I have a built-in audience through Write It Sideways. About a year ago, Catherine Ryan Hyde (author of Pay It Forward) contacted me through my blog, and it occurred to me that she'd make a fantastic interviewee for this theoretical journal. I ran the idea past her, she accepted, and things snowballed from there. Within a few months, I was advertising for a team of editors, soliciting submissions for the inaugural issue, and planning out all the technical aspects. It's come together really well, despite being an insane amount of work.
Why a new magazine? How would your magazine be different from all the other magazines? Why do you think it is going to be successful?
First, many literary journals have their own blogs, but I couldn't find any other writing blogs that had created their own literary journal. I thought it would be a way to lead the pack and stand out as having done something different. (I'm still waiting for someone to tell me they've beaten us to the punch.) Although Compose will stand on its own, it's another avenue for readers of Write It Sideways to see good writing put into practice. And, because writers make up a big portion of literary journal readership, I wanted them to see Compose not only as beautiful, but useful as well. This is where the interviews and feature articles about writing come in.
Second, our editors have some pretty great literary connections, so I want us to become known for featuring established writers alongside emerging ones. From experience, I know how awesome it is to see your work published in the same issue as writers you really admire. Some of our esteemed contributors include Randall Mann and Rebecca Hazelton in poetry, Glen Chamberlain and Jael McHenry in fiction, Jeff Goins and Josh Hanagarne in personal essays, and Barbara Abercrombie, Lisa Cron, and Jennie Nash in feature articles. We have some newer writers with very fine pieces, as well, and my hope is that this combination will encourage emerging writers to submit. There are so many talented ones out there.
Compose had its first issue out in May. What challenges have you faced in getting the magazine set up?
Naming the journal was the first and biggest hurdle to overcome. Honestly, I had more trouble deciding on Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing than my children's names, because there were a number of factors to consider. I had some real duds in the beginning, so I'm glad I got some feedback from trusted writers before making my choice. Aside from that, everything takes three or four times as long as you plan for it to, and everything costs more than you think it will. Establishing an efficient workflow and documenting our processes, style guide, and policies have been time-consuming, but I really wanted to get these things sorted immediately so there's less chance of major headaches later.
How hard is it to get quality submissions for a first issue of a magazine?
I imagine it would’ve been really difficult if I'd just put up a random call for submissions, but we had a leg up in terms of connections. I first solicited work from writers I'd connected with in the past, then I put out a call for submissions on my blog and through social media, and finally, once we had editors, they brought in a few extra submissions.
We're also featuring excerpts from traditionally published novels or collections, which you don't always see in journals. It's a great opportunity for us to showcase accomplished work that isn't available elsewhere online, and it gives the author a chance to share their work with more readers who might not otherwise have heard of them. For example, we're publishing Glen Chamberlain's short story “Horse Thieves,” which is from her collection Conjugations of the Verb To Be. It's not a well-known collection at the moment, but I hope it will be so after a few more thousand people read her work. She's amazing.
In addition to being the Managing Editor of Compose, you are the founding editor of Write It Sideways, an associate editor at Anderbo and a writer. All of these projects are online; won’t we see any of them, or may be something else, in print?
I do hope you'll see some of my work in print some day—a collection of short fiction or a novel, or maybe both. I don't know that there'll ever be a regular print component to the journal, but I'd love to do a 'Best of' anthology from Compose once it has been established for some time.
Do you see any difference between print and online magazines other than the costs?
From a writer's perspective:
Once, online journals were thought of as less prestigious than print ones, but people spend so much time online these days that perceptions are changing. We writers want to be able to share pieces from our portfolios with as many readers as possible. An online portfolio can list printed work, but it can link to online work. Print may still have the edge in prestige, but online journals are practical for today's writers.
From a publisher's perspective:
The beauty of a digital journal is that space isn't really an issue. In general we're free to accept pieces of varying lengths. If we're inundated with life-changing pieces that we simply must publish, there's no real reason we can't. Also, after the initial costs are out of the way, it's relatively inexpensive to keep an online journal running.
Are you willing to have overseas editors? If yes, how do you think they will enrich your magazine
Actually, I'm the overseas editor on our team! I'm a Canadian living in Australia, and the rest of my editors live in the U.S. In the future, we would be very open to having editors from other countries around the world, especially if they can attract some multicultural pieces or translations, and work with international writers in ways that our current team can't. We're also open to having guest editors for special themed issues.
You mentioned in your call for submissions that Compose will publish interviews with literary agents. With the fast progress of online publishing, what do you think is the role of literary agents today?
Agents are still relevant today, even if many writers are choosing to self-publish (in fact, I believe three of our editors currently have literary representation). What seems to be more common now is a hybrid arrangement: authors have agents to take care of their traditionally published work, but many wish to maintain their right to self-publish on the side. Yes, you can get your work out there without an agent, but securing representation is still the best way to get published by a traditional house. Agents edit manuscripts, connect with publishers, negotiate contracts, advise authors in matters of publicity, and shape careers. Agent-blogger Rachelle Gardner says, “Agents are business partners and trusted advisors,” who are evolving along with the industry, rather than disappearing.
Where is the short drama? Why do we rarely see literary magazines publishing short plays?
For the average journal, It must be a matter of there not being a big enough readership. I love watching or taking part in a play, but a script doesn't come to life for me until there are actors behind it. I think a lot of readers would feel the same way. You'd also probably have to hire an editor with a background in writing and publishing drama, and I just don't think there's enough demand to justify that. But, there are publications solely devoted to short drama, so it's still available to those who want it.
What do you think it is that makes a short story publishable?
You know how on shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice,” the judges are looking for 'moments'? Something that takes the music to a new level? Something that gives them chills? That's what I look for. The writer might have a unique voice, or describe something in a way that makes me see the world differently or that's just so inexplicably beautiful or true. George Saunders's “The End of FIRPO in the World” is a story I read recently which blew me away. My mouth was hanging open at the end—not from shock, but from sheer disbelief that something could be so sad and beautiful and ugly all at once. So, while good, clear writing is the foundation of a publishable story, that's the type of experience I'm looking for. Even a few glimpses of it can make all the difference.