"We Always Hope to See a Diversity of Ideas and Approaches." Sophie Beck Chats About The Normal School
Each journal and magazine has its own story and develops a life of its own. I was happy to formulate questions that hopefully brought out interesting insights into the life of the Normal School. As is often found in the lives of editors, there is admirable dedication and commitment to the literary life.
Creativity thrives within the pages of The Normal School and thus inspires creativity and excellence in others.
Interview by Connie Post
How long has The Normal School been inexistence? What was its origin and original focus?
Our first issue was published in the fall of 2008. Several years prior, my co-editors, Steven and Matt and I attended the same writing program and, along with a handful of others, formed a group to read one another’s work, give public readings, and generally encourage and energize one another. Jobs and life pulled us all in different directions, but we continued to stay in touch. I know it wasn’t my idea to start a magazine, but once Steven or Matt proposed it, the emails began to fly. Obviously, there are already many super literary journals out there but we kept talking about the orphan work—the pieces that were too long, or too short, or too experimental, or too cross-genre, or too something. We still love those orphans, but we get equally misty-eyed over the traditionally crafted pieces and we nestle them all happily together.
When Steven took his job teaching creative nonfiction at California State University, Fresno, he proposed the idea of starting a new literary magazine and, astonishingly, the administration said yes. We have had a super benefactor from the start and a strong team—we work with the same copy editors, the same art director, and for all but two issues, the same printer. Our genre editors tend to stick around, too. Our interns change, but they’re always lovely and I always have the same reaction to them—the impulse to hug them and make them soup and tell them not to take on student debt. All that consistency makes a stable platform for risk-taking. So, we publish first-person imaginings from the perspective of the Columbine shooters, an essay crafted out of quotes from professional wrestlers, an essay written in Google Maps, and so on.
What do you think makes an ideal editorial team and how well does your team fit that model?
I can’t say with any authority what an ideal editorial team would look like, but I have the impression it comes in many variations. Ours is a constellation—we live in different places and the authority is quite spread out. Steven makes many of the editorial decisions in collaboration with our genre editors and I trust them entirely. Matt reads widely and will often solicit work from writers who intrigue him. He’s also a gifted developmental editor—something I won’t touch. I scrape it all together, and make sure it becomes an actual paper magazine (with as few errors as possible). Neither Steven nor Matt care to get in my biz about that very often. We have this dynamic website over which I have not a bit of authority; it’s Randa Jarrar’s baby with a look, feel, and function carefully cultivated by a couple of our amazing former interns who remain steadfastly invested in the magazine.
I think we regularly benefit from the mutual trust we built up long before we started the magazine. It allowed us to make space for one another, and eventually make space for others as well.
We have always aspired to turn the idea of normal on its head a bit.
How does the editorial team handle differences of opinion?
We fight in a giant iron cage. Or, perhaps more commonly, we give way. I don’t love everything we’ve ever accepted but someone around here most definitely did. If everything we published held to only my own aesthetic, The Normal School would be quite dull (to me as much as anyone else). What a relief that there is more than one mindset in the mix. And what I have not loved, I have still respected—the work we’ve gotten to publish is ridiculously good.
Most current journals today focus primarily on poetry and or fiction, and I see that The Normal School also focuses on non-fiction. Do you think this differentiates you from the mainstream literary magazines? If so, in what way?
We are crazy-in-love with nonfiction. I think we are in the midst of a genuinely exciting era for the essay. People are playing with structure, with descriptive technique, with style, with the boundaries of truth and knowability. They’re integrating heavy research and reporting with memoir, blending in “found” texts and other artifacts, and borrowing from every possible other genre. The kind of experimentation going on in essay right now is both joyous and sly, and it’s very, very smart—for me, it’s where some of the best action is. But I don’t think that’s a secret and I see many journals publishing nonfiction. The main difference may be that we publish more of it than most—over half of the prose we publish in any given paper issue is usually nonfiction.
How do you divide the “genre pie” in a way that is effective for the magazine?
It varies from issue to issue, depending on what we’ve received. We don’t want to turn away an exciting piece of writing because we already filled a quota for that genre.
On your website, under the subheading “About/What’s Normal,” you state: “We dig quirky, boundary-challenging, energetic prose and poetry with innovations in content, form, and focus, which isn't actually as high-falutin' as it sounds.” I found this statement refreshing and it, of course, contradicts most of what we think of as “normal.” Can you elaborate?
If the adage is that “you will never go broke underestimating the taste of the American people” then perhaps the fact that literary journals are, by and large, some form of broke all the time—we run on the leanest of lean budgets after all—gives us the freedom to hoist the bar quite high and effectively go the other direction. We assume serious intellectual engagement from our subscribers. Readers are ridiculously astute and any writer who can lead capably into interesting territory will get a great reception around here. So, we welcome innovation.
And yes, we have always aspired to turn the idea of normal on its head a bit.
In a 2010 Poets and Writers article you also said the title of the journal was meant to be “playful.”Do most readers and writers interpret and respond to your journal as playful?
The work we publish runs the gamut and some of it is, indeed, quite serious. But editorially, I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously and that seems to be clear to both contributors and readers. We’ve had our moments of failure on that front. For the first few years, we sent out a sticker along with our rejection notices. It read, “I was rejected by The Normal School.” As amply rejected writers ourselves (what writer who actually sends out her work hasn’t acquired a stack of rejections?), we thought the sticker was hilarious—a reminder that the submission process itself can’t be taken too seriously. And who wants to be normal? To be rejected by an institution that could be construed as a “school of normalcy” should be a badge of pride! How great to have a sticker to commemorate the ordeal? The rejection sticker got a mixed reception. We received emails from writers who thought it was clever and funny, and we received a handful of emails from writers who were offended and felt that we were not honoring the hard work that had gone into the composition of those submissions and the vulnerability we all endure when we send our work out for consideration. It was never our wish to be disrespectful and we discontinued the sticker. It was undoubtedly because in those first years we saw ourselves very much as “writers who happen to be editing” that we were able to be glib about the submission process. Now that we are more equal parts writers and editors, we are probably a bit more measured, even in our play.
How important do you think it is for the writing you publish to be accessible. What does that mean for you? How might this idea of accessibility work for or against your readership? The magazine?
Oh, accessibility is my favorite word! I can’t get away from it. I want it to be incredibly easy to find a point of entry when you pick up The Normal School. But, as I said before, readers are smart and I don’t think anything that is written well is ever going to leave our readers behind, regardless of subject or approach. So, accessible shouldn’t be construed as lacking in rigor.
Accessibility is certainly my mantra, but it pertains to the visual and organizational presentation of the magazine. I think a dense journal with page after page of unbroken, tiny type is hard to read. It yields to the very dedicated—the person who will doggedly plow in and just read. The rest of us slobs appreciate being courted and coaxed a bit. For this reason, we begin each issue with the Reader’s Guide and then, within the body, use a three-column format, broken by ads and interesting quotes pulled from the body text of each piece. It allows browsing—you can window-shop the magazine a bit before settling in to read something that catches your eye.
In your P& W interview, you spoke about mistakes you have learned from. Can you tell me about a few of the mistakes that most impacted your magazine and which ones you learned the most from?
Oh, we’re always apologizing about something. If we’d lost my-now-friend David’s subscription one more time, he probably would have gotten on a plane to Colorado for the express purpose of egging my house. Fortunately, most of the errors are small.
Probably our biggest mistake was to give so little consideration to the question of whether we were actually qualified to run a magazine—I’m so glad we made that oversight.
The work we publish runs the gamut and some of it is, indeed, quite serious. But editorially, I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously and that seems to be clear to both contributors and readers.
The art work for your issues definitely draws attention and it outside the “normal” covers I’ve seen. How do you select the covers for your issues” Tell us about one of your favorites.
The covers are SO FUN. We’ve been able to coax cover art out of some very talented artists. We’ve learned to give very little creative direction. We give the mag over to the artist and his or her vision. I sometimes give our artists theme ideas to work from, or sometimes simply cut them loose to dream up their own ideas, but the themes are very loose and open—“Rube Goldberg machine”, “show and tell day”, “county fair”. The result never fails to be exciting. One of my favorite moments with each issue is when I get to see the cover art for the first time.
For the Rube Goldberg cover on our second issue, Chris Shaw created the elaborate machine in segments, all on separate little pieces of paper, and then pieced them all together to develop the final illustration. It’s masterfully done, beautiful in its technical imaginativeness and intricacy as well as its humor.
One of my favorite covers is our Spring 2014 cover, in which a giant monster troll creature sits comfortably reading in a diner booth. The artist, Morgan Schweitzer, and I ended up on the phone for an extended call in which he was trying to divine what I wanted and I was trying not to over-direct him. It was a conversation that sounded something like this, “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” A week later he came back with no less than eight completely different (awesome) sketches and bubbling with energy about how he’d gotten on a roll and it didn’t even matter what we chose because he had all manner of ideas for what he was going to do with all of them.
In the same way that seeing a great piece of writing find a readership through us is fulfilling, it’s very satisfying to watch a piece of art come into being and then get printed a couple thousand times.
As you know, sadly, Philip Levine recently passed away. I noticed he was integral to the beginning of the journal. Can you say a few words about his work and how it affected the aesthetic and overall journey of The Normal School?
Phil was so supportive of us from the very beginning. He gave us two poems for the first issue and, down the line, a marvelous and thoughtful exploration for a poetry “lost and found.” There was no fanfare—he just threw in his support by generously giving us his beautiful work to publish. We find ourselves at a loss to describe how we felt about him or how much we loved him and the way he was true to himself. We just miss him.
What is the last thing you want to see in a submission pile today? What do you most want to find there?
We always hope to see a diversity of ideas and approaches, which means there’s no one mandate.
But that’s not a very satisfying answer to a writer thinking about letting us consider her work. So, there are two things a potential contributor can do to assure the best possible reading on our end:
1. Let someone you trust read your work before you send it. Your friend will help you assess the readiness of the piece and find the small errors you overlooked.
2. Shut the door and read it aloud to yourself. Your own voice will find all the places where your writing stumbles.
Where do you see The Normal School in ten years? Are there changes you would like to see?
That is tricky because technology is changing so rapidly, it seems nearly impossibly to anticipate what new way of connecting with readers we’ll be able to tap into. I’m such a Luddite, though, that I hope we still publish a paper magazine as well… and that there will always be other people who like to dog-ear pages and write in margins and rip things out and so on.
When you view the first galleys of a new issue, what is your first response?
Well, I mentioned earlier that we are an editorial constellation. I never see the galleys—Steven does. By the time we have galleys, I have been handling every page of the magazine for months. I coordinate with our copy editors, Petra and Abe, work through changes with our contributors, develop the Reader’s Guide, go back and forth with Joan, our art director, and so on. There comes a point when I simply don’t see the magazine well any more—I just don’t find the typo or the horrifyingly horrible error. So, that’s when Steven and the interns give it a final pass, and save me from myself. But Steven says the exact same thing every single time he gets the proof in his hands; “This is a great issue!” It stays exciting for us every time.
Thank you very much for your time! Is there anything you want your readers to know that I did not cover?
Nope! Thank you! We’re pleased to be in The Review Review.
Connie Post served as the first Poet Laureate of Livermore, California from 2005 - 2009. Her work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Calyx, Cold Mountain Review, Crab Creek Review, Comstock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Slipstream, Spoon River Poetry Review and The Valparaiso Poetry Review She was the winner of the Cover Prize for the Spring 2009 issue of The Dirty Napkin and the winner of the 2009 Caesura Poetry Awards. Her work has received praise from Al Young, Ursula LeGuin and Ellen Bass. She has been short listed for the Muriel Craft Bailey awards (Comstock Review) Lois Cranston Memorial Awards (Calyx), Blood Root Literary Magazine and the Gary Gildner Award (I 70 Review). Her first full length book “Floodwater” was released by Glass Lyre Press in 2014 and won the Lyrebird award.