On Track With Glimmer Train
Back in the 80’s, Linda Swanson-Davies and her sister, Susan Burmeister-Brown, felt that the literary short stories they were seeing in journals were, as Swanson-Davies puts it, “rather cool to the touch.” Avid readers, they started their own journal – Glimmer Train – in the hopes of bringing a different kind of story to print. “We wanted to read more deeply engaging stories, and to give the stories of great emerging writers the attention they deserve,” says Swanson-Davies. Two decades later, the sisters appear to have accomplished their goal: Several Glimmer Train stories were listed as notables in The Best American Short Stories 2010, and Glimmer Train pieces have also appeared in recent editions of the Pushcart Prize, O. Henry and New Stories from the South anthologies. In addition to putting out a highly-respected literary quarterly, Swanson-Davies and her sister publish Writers Ask, a quarterly newsletter. Swanson-Davies has also co-edited two short story anthologies, Where Love is Found: 24 Tales of Connection and Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood, as well as two fiction-writing guides, The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Building Blocks and The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline. Here, Swanson-Davies talks about Glimmer Train, the changing world of literary journals, and what she looks for in a story.
Interview by Lori Miller Kase
What would you say distinguishes Glimmer Train from other literary journals?
Our mission is to present meaningful literary short stories by emerging writers (all of our submissions are unsolicited and 99.9% of them are un-agented) in a handsome physical publication that will be read and re-read over time.
There are Glimmer Train readers on every continent (yes, even Antarctica), so our contributors know their work will persist in the minds of readers (and on their shelves) all over the world. We also register issues with the Library of Congress, so a writer's fiction will be formally preserved for the long haul.
We two sisters have edited Glimmer Train since the beginning, and, although we are continually changed by the fiction and by circumstances from personal to global, it is possible for writers to get a feel for what might be a "Glimmer Train story."
Maybe lastly is the fact that, although we're kept very busy--as are all literary editors--we consider ourselves supremely lucky that writers give us the opportunity to read their stories. We read all online submissions ourselves, which has so opened up our lives, allowing us to see through the eyes of literally hundreds of thousands of people over the years. We are as thrilled now to find an irresistible story by a new writer as we were twenty years ago, and maybe more so because we know that getting published in GT can make a difference for a new writer.
So I guess what distinguishes GT is the commitment to reading and publishing significant new fiction by new writers, and to preserving their stories for the long haul.
The fall issue of Glimmer Train – Issue 76 – marks the 20th anniversary of the journal. Would you say your mission today remains the same as when you and your sister first began publishing Glimmer Train? What have you learned over two decades of putting out a literary journal and how has the world of literary journalism changed over that period of time?
Our mission remains the same. The internet has dramatically affected--whether directly or indirectly--the lives of nearly everyone: It's become more difficult for people to concentrate, to focus, even on things they truly care about. That means only those really committed to reading and writing will be engaged in those activities, which I guess sorts things out a bit.
On the clearly positive side, the internet has made possible the explosion of e-zines that provide vastly more opportunities for people to get their work read. And it's certainly improved our lives as the editors of Glimmer Train: Without the internet, we could not possibly read the thousands of stories that writers send us; we'd be too busy tearing open envelopes, tending paper cuts, and carrying out recycling.
On your website, you say that you and your sister established Glimmer Train with the goal of publishing literary short stories that are “emotionally significant.” Can you expound on that?
We want stories to be well-written and engaging, of course, but we also want them to be meaningful, to be memorable, and to add understanding and perspective to our lives. Writers might keep in mind that if they are not themselves emotionally engaged in the lives and struggles of their characters, it will be hard for readers to connect with the work; to have enduring value, stories must make connections.
I understand Glimmer Train receives about 40,000 manuscripts per year. What compels you to keep reading a story? Is there anything that makes you put a story down? What makes a piece of fiction stand out to the Glimmer Train editors?
The first requirement is that a story be well-written: Sentences and paragraphs need to make sense; something needs to be going on; there should be no use of clichés. If those basic requirements are not met, we will put a story down. It's also important that a writer get into a significant aspect of the story right away. Try to avoid starting a story with a thick paragraph of description.
When a person has developed the skill to tell an engaging story--material that is important to the writer--in original language, we are hooked.
When you plan an issue, are you intentionally looking for a mix of emerging and established writers – or just the best stories?
We only publish stories that we love. If we have two great stories and pages for one, we'll lean toward the story by the new writer. Happily, there is no shortage of wonderful stories by emerging writers. To create a welcoming (and unintimidating) atmosphere for new writers, we have the Short Story Award for New Writers four times a year, but emerging writers are welcome, and do well in, all contest categories, as well as in the standard category for which there are no reading fees.
You mentioned that most of the writers you publish are un-agented. Do you get many calls from agents who are interested in writers they’ve read in Glimmer Train?
We get a lot of inquiries from agents whenever an issue comes out. It seems like it’s a bit of a race the first couple of weeks, which is both encouraging to, and can lead to significant advances for, a writer. It’s an added bonus when an agent takes on a competition winner because that official success makes it easier for them to get a publisher’s attention.
Many of the stories in Issue 76 touch on themes of loss. Do you look for common themes in the stories you pull together for a particular issue?
Issue themes always surprise us. We publish stories in order of acceptance (though 1st-place winning stories are on a strict publication schedule so they come out a little earlier) and when we put together an issue, we often find that there is a theme, though we never set out with that in mind.
Writers, bloggers and critics have fretted about the dismal future of print media. Indeed, a number of small literary journals have folded, and many others have migrated online to cut costs. Even Glimmer Train, which is widely-respected and widely-read, shows no signs of breaking even. How can literary journals survive in this kind of climate? Do you ever get discouraged? What keeps you going?
Literary journals can survive--easily--if writers commit to reading literary journals. Most committed literary writers do this already for multiple reasons: 1) They love reading literary fiction, 2) they know there's no better way to improve their own writing skills than to immerse themselves in reading great literary fiction, 3) they want to support their peers, 4) they know that literary journals cannot provide print publication opportunities if they cannot afford to exist. Literary writers, readers, and editors are utterly dependent upon one another.
Although many people seem to be losing their capacity to thoughtfully engage with complex material (The Atlantic had an interesting article on this), there are still writers who are driven to write meaningful literary work, and serious readers (including ourselves!) who can't imagine life without it.