How much can you like somebody you’ve never met?
No, it’s not an internet dating question (although it could be) it’s a question about the weird, intense, often painful world of writing and editing as it is done, often nowadays, via the Internet. One thing you start to notice about editors is they can be rather cold. The chill creeps up on them and after a year or so of saying no to writers; you can feel the arctic penumbra around them, even via email. I’ve caught that chilly atmosphere myself at times and had to work hard to shake it off.
Not so Alicia Gifford. She is one of the warmest, most enthusiastic and funniest editors I know. I worked alongside her (well, as much 'alongside' as you can be, when one is in LA and the other in the UK) for a year at Night Train and found that she never, ever developed the chill, and that made her profoundly likeable. She’s also a downright brilliant writer; read Toggling the Switch at Narrative
which won the Million Writers Award in 2004 or Debbie and Me at Mississippi Review Mississippi Review and see if you don’t agree. I asked Alicia to share some secrets with me ...
How did you get into editing?
Rusty Barnes, the co-founder and editor of Night Train, posted an ad of sorts for associate editors for the journal. I applied and he said yes. I was one of several associate editors reading slush. Over time, Night Train went through a number of shifts and changes, and I eventually became Fiction Editor.
What’s the best thing about being an editor?
Without a doubt it’s reading a story that you fall in love with. And accepting it for publication. And beholding the end product.
And what’s the worst thing?
Oh that would be rejection, especially things that come close, that you stress over trying to decide, and rejecting work from writers you know. It’s hard.
What’s the one mistake you made, when starting out, that still haunts you?
Waiting so long. I always liked to write but I had it in my head that you had to have a full-blown story mapped out before trying to write it. I never considered writing short stories; I wasn’t familiar with the genre since I’d always read novels in the past. I took a fiction class in 2000 and a light went on when I realized you could sit down and put down sentence after sentence, and give birth to a story. I was introduced to short literary fiction at this time and it usurped all my literary interests. I wish I’d done it 20 years earlier, but my life was very different then. My current situation and experience is far more conducive to writing. Still, I rue it daily that I didn't start much earlier, when I still had a brain.
Who do you most admire as a writer, and why?
Traditionally I answer Lorrie Moore. I read, “You’re Ugly, Too” in that first writing class (taught by Tod Goldberg) and something clicked. I wanted to write like Lorrie! I devoured her collections and her novels, and maybe she’s influenced/inspired me the most, her funny/sad, exquisite manipulation of words. But then there’s Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, and the collected stories of Richard Yates, Junot Diaz’s short story, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and Tobias Wolfe’s “Bullet to the Brain”. These are a few of my favorite things.
What advice would you give somebody who is thinking of becoming an editor?
Learning to recognize, heed and trust your emotional responses to a story. You have to consider craft, of course, but a beautifully written story won’t trump one that yanks at something true and emotional.
And what advice would you give writers hoping to be published?
Firstly I’d say to forget about publishing and fame and fortune when you’re in the creative aspect. Writing with the specter of whether it’s going to be published or not is stifling. From the business aspect, my advice is basic: Study the markets and develop a personal strategy when it comes time to submit, such as forming a tier system and keeping track of submissions etc. Chances of publication are higher the more you submit and also submitting to places that seem to have a similar aesthetic to your work. Pretty boring, isn't it? Are you still awake?
You do other things besides editing; your own writing for example - which is most important to you?
Well, it’s the writing. Editing has its rewards but my main interest is writing. And editing does drain off some writing energy, something to juggle and balance.
If you were abandoned on a desert island, with just one book for company, what would it be?
This is one of those damn trick questions, isn’t it?
I would choose the biggest, fattest short story anthology I could find. Maybe American Short Story Masterpieces edited by Tom Jenks and Raymond Carver or Esquire's Big Book of Fiction. If I could have a machine I’d take the New Yorker CD and read every issue, which would include every short story they've ever published.