"We Want Writing That is Alive, That Thrives, That Beats on the Page."
Two years ago, while waiting for grad school responses, Sara Rauch founded Cactus Heart on a whim. Since then, Sara and her editors have shaped Cactus Heart into a literary magazine for writing with a spiny exterior and succulent interior, a home for work that bears both edge and pulse in equal measure. Cactus Heart publishes six issues each year – four e-Issues and two print – and receives about 500 submissions per reading period.
Interview by Martin van Velsen
Would it be fair to characterize Cactus Heart Press as a literary magazine that draws a lot of inspiration from nature? Could you talk a bit about that and perhaps give some examples of work that inspire you?
Definitely. Nature – though I prefer the term ‘wild’ – is really important to me, and is a huge influence on Cactus Heart’s aesthetic. I’m a person who thinks primarily in relationships, and one of my favorites is the relationship between the wild and what I call the ‘ordinary’ – domestic, human, urban, etc. – I’m always on the lookout for manifestations of this relationship; I’m a city-dweller, but I’m always hunting for stories about bears hanging out in downtown trees or coyotes in parks, always on the lookout for flowers struggling through cracks in cement. There’s something very magic, very mysterious about nature, about wildness – how it never disappears, it’s always there, you just have to pay attention. On some levels, I think writing is a wild process, and the best writing breaks restraints, inhabits spaces it’s maybe not supposed to. I’m always searching for that kind of work, and I think Cactus Heart represents that – the work we publish isn’t common, isn’t tame – it’s got teeth and nails, it’s seeking to escape its fences.
As for work that inspires me, I could run a laundry list of names: some of my favorite authors who explore/push that boundary between wild and ordinary are Anthony Doerr, Sarah Hall, Rick Bass, Kelly Link, Barbara Kingsolver, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Louise Glück, Eduardo C. Corral. There’s a great novel that I’m always talking about, The Albino Album, by Chavisa Woods, that is one of the most feral (and I mean that as a high compliment) books I’ve ever read. There are so many more, but I’m about to move and my books are packed away so I can’t go scan the shelves.
More than any other magazine it appears that you are very much seeking content that has a strong mood and emotional tone, is this accurate?
Absolutely. Mood and emotional tone are really important to us. On a personal level, since I don’t want to speak for my editors, though I do think they’d agree with me, I want to feel something when I read a piece. I want something – even if it’s ineffable – to be evoked. There’s also a certain level of intensity that I prefer, and maybe the mood and tone of CH come from that place – life isn’t boring, you know? Life is moody and emotional, and we seek art that portrays that, on some level or another.
Can you talk a little bit about your process of how you reach out and find appropriate authors?
So far, all of our writers have come to us through the “slush pile.” The editors and I don’t actively solicit work, though we do encourage writers of our acquaintance to submit. I just finished my MFA in fiction at Pacific University, and through that program have come into contact with a number of amazingly talented writers, some of who have appeared in our pages. That being said, all of our work comes to us through Submittable, and every piece we receive is read and considered.
The magazine’s website contains a tantalizing line that says “I am devoted to spiny writing & art—sharp, relentless,” how do you see the balance between motivational and inspirational versus let’s say shock or thought provoking?
We get a ton of cover letters quoting that line! As for balance – I don’t often think about whether something is inspirational or shocking while I’m reading it, but I think you’re right, there is some sense of running the gauntlet between the two in many of the pieces we publish. This question makes me think of Wes Anderson, whose movies I so admire, because I think he navigates this balance so well—his movies are a little shocking, a little weird, a little fraught, people and animals die, things are confusing, and yet, I always leave the theater after his movies feeling so damn grateful to be alive.
On the other hand, another main theme of the magazine is to maintain a vulnerable and succulent interior, can you tell us a little about how you see the two extremes work together and perhaps give us a good sense of what kind of writing you’re a looking for?
Life is full of extremes. Some of the toughest people I know are the biggest criers. Think of the cactus, after which I named my magazine; it’s a bizarre survivalist, barbed and self-protective, and yet, if you dare approach it, you’ll see it’s a thing of beauty, and if you dare to venture further, you’ll split it open to find the sweet, juicy center.
As for defining a kind of writing, that’s a tough one. I think we’re pretty eclectic. We publish experimental, traditional, linear, non-linear, plot-based, character-based, setting-heavy, idea-heavy—perhaps it sounds vague to say we’re looking for writing with a pulse, but when it really comes down to it, I think that’s the most accurate description. We want writing that is alive, that thrives, that beats on the page. We want writing that risks something in order to expose the deeper truth of what it means to be human in this crazy world.
A main focus of the magazine is the examination and experience of human relationships. Can you tell the readers a little bit about what inspires the editors and how you see literature as humanism?
I think Marin, Thea, and I are each in our way invested in selecting stories that bring the human experience to the fore. At the risk of sounding idealistic, I think good literature, like all good art, forces us to see and understand stories very different from our own. And there are as many stories out there as there are humans, more stories even. We’ve been telling stories for as long as we’ve had the gift of language, and there’s a reason for that – it’s how we make sense of the world, how we place ourselves in this continuum. On a certain level, literature as humanism aims for a chorus of voices, and I’m all for that.
Most pieces in the magazine have certain writing and literary styles. They are very mellifluous and have a nice flow and cadence to them, even the fiction pieces. Is this a conscious effort?
It is both conscious and unconscious. I read and select all our fiction submissions, but I come with a poet’s eye – I studied poetry as an undergraduate, and still read a ton of it. Fiction is now my main genre, and my tastes tend to run toward a rather spare style of prose, but lyricism still gets me. I love language. I love plot and character and setting too, but I really love language. I always know I’ve found a piece I want to publish when I stop and have to read a line out loud, just to hear the music of it. I see this love of language in Marin’s nonfiction choices and Thea’s poetry choices too. You know, Marin and Thea and I read and choose for the three genres without consulting one another, but always when they send me their final selections and I begin putting together an issue, I find these strange synchronicities between our choices. There will be little language things – words, sentence structures, dialogues – as well as bigger thematic or stylistic things that I pick up on, and I try to play those off one another.
Martin van Velsen is a scientist, a sculptor, a researcher, a code monkey, and a writer--although not necessarily in that order. His mad science adventures have included: neurosurgery simulations, language technologies, artificial intelligence, robots and virtual humans. Martin lives in Pittsburgh in an old renovated Victorian toy factory and has trouble digging himself out of his ancient book collection every morning. The contact juggling is purely circumstantial.