"Getting at the 'Magic' of a Good Piece of Writing." A Chat With Anna Schachner, Editor of Chattahoochee Review
In regular circulation since 1981, The Chattahoochee Review brings together its devotion to the South and its quest to discover great literary voices. Anna Schachner, editor of The Chattahoochee Review, provides details about the journal’s aesthetic, its southern roots, and the secret to its longevity and success.
Interview by Jennifer Stern
Can you talk a little bit about the history of The Chattahoochee Review?
Well, I am proud to say that The Chattahoochee Review is in its thirty-seventh year of publishing, and we are looking forward to its fortieth anniversary when, I suspect, we will do something grand to celebrate. When its founding editor, Lamar York, bravely and steadfastly (it is no small feat to start a journal) began the journal back in 1980, our college was called DeKalb College, a growing, multi-campus, two-year institution in the Atlanta metro area. I say this because there are very few—less than ten, I think—journals with any kind of longevity sponsored by two-year colleges. It’s also a distinguishing mark from most other long-running journals, many of which are connected to academic institutions with MFA programs. The point is, Lamar had a vision in starting the journal, a vision reinforced by his conviction to focus TCR on the South, to promote Southern writers, so for its first eighteen or so years, that’s what it did. And it “caught on” pretty fast and pretty strong. Looking at issues from the 1980s and 1990s, you’ll find names like Fred Chappell, Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Madison Smartt Bell, Larry Brown (he is very missed), Anthony Grooms, Sam Pickering, Jr., Ron Rash, and Julianna Baggott, just to name a few. And back then, the journal was published quarterly, with simple, elegant, monotone covers with gilded lettering. It included fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and book reviews, for the most part. I had the great fortune to work with Lamar, as fiction editor, for six years, time that helped prepare me for becoming editor years later, although at the time I had no plans to do such.
When he became editor, Lamar’s successor, Lawrence Hetrick, adhered to the same format that Lamar had established. He also did the occasional interview or special-focus issue—for example, he edited an issue that focused on Raymond Andrews, for which we still get requests years later. I really like the idea of the special focus, which we do now, although ours tend toward place and theme whereas his tended toward a writer. But it goes without saying that both Lamar and Lawrence really established the foundation for the journal; they built its reputation, the very same one that I hope to be furthering as I now guide it through the world.
When I became editor back in 2011, after the journal had suffered some declining years, I had the opportunity to rebrand and rebuild it. It was a lot of work, but it was exciting, fun, and rewarding because I had a great managing editor, Lydia Ship, who started along with me and a very enthusiastic and devoted staff of faculty readers and editors. And I had a lot of support at the college. From the very beginning, the new editorial team that we created saw the journal not just as a journal but as a community, and we worked to promote both parts of its identity. We continued the tradition of overseeing the Townsend Prize for Fiction, Georgia’s prestigious award to an outstanding book of fiction every two years, which is a huge part of the Atlanta and state literary community; we started a reading series that brought in local authors, Townsend Prize finalists, in particular, The Chattahoochee Review Guest Author series; we offered presentations/workshops at local book festivals and in local creative writing classes; we did a summer workshop for local high school students; and we started a series of workshops for student and community veterans called “Writing the Veteran Experience.” And, of course, we go to AWP, where Lydia and I have often done panels and where we show off The Chattahoochee Review at the book fair.
And while we were doing all these events, the magical thing about the journal itself is that the submissions became better and better. We get so much good work that we have to be highly selective. I think the word got out that we were professional and discerning and super-committed to publishing both emerging and established authors. And we are open to plays, to interviews, to genre-bending pieces, although we very much favor tradition when it comes to work. Another thing that is important in terms of recent history is that TCR is getting some love from the big anthologies, which doesn’t hurt. We’ve had three or four or our special-focus issues receive Notable mentions in the Best American series, and lots of our nonfiction pieces have as well. I am biased, of course, but I think that our special-focus issues have been, well, special. We’ve had one that focused on Irish writers and included two award-winning plays. We had one that focused on the South only. Others were more thematic: “The Animal,” “Skin,” “Migration,” and “Off the Record.” Our next one is “Neighbors.”
The Chattahoochee Review has been in regular circulation since 1981, consistently publishes great work, and has sent many pieces to national anthologies. What do you see as its secret to success?
I think it goes back to that foundation that Lamar York gave the journal, its reputation, and the tradition that Lawrence Hetrick upheld, the same tradition that we still try to honor. TCR has always thought of its contributors and subscribers as a big community, and the current editors, myself included, really hope that we communicate that to them. For example, we will do all we can to promote a book by a contributor, and we reach out to subscribers with regular newsletters and blog posts. We also learn by being in a community of other journals.
To be honest, our success also comes from having support from our college—or now, it is more accurately our university, since we have recently merged with Georgia State University—and having committed, motivated people working on The Chattahoochee Review. Again, because most of my staff is volunteer—folks who are helping read and edit on top of a very intense teaching load—I can’t say enough about how lucky I am to have them. Year after year, the same folks who initially supported the “new” TCR (since 2011) are still doing just that, and as new faculty come to the college, they join the staff, too. And Lydia Ship is a fantastic managing editor—she is such an advocate for not just our journal but for all literary journals. She and I both try to seize opportunities when we see them. For example, this interview. Or submitting our own work to journals. Meeting other editors and learning from what other journals do, which is where AWP and CLMP come in handy.
I also think that having found our aesthetic is part of our success. We publish very established writers like Natasha Trethewey, Aimee Bender, and Edmund White, but we are committed to the mission of finding/promoting emerging writers. Very committed to that. And our “vibe” is not just the writing we publish, but the tone of the book reviews and interviews we run, the look of our journal. We include art. Our formatting is refined but not fussy. Our covers are folky but beautiful—or so we like to think. We know who we are. We like who we are. You have to like what you do in this business.
Are there particular challenges that you anticipate for the future?
I think the challenge is always to find your niche, and in our case, that means out there in the big literary world/community and here within our college/university and local community. A journal has to be able to respond, and respond quickly and positively, to change. Social media comes to mind. We have a small staff, so we don’t have a social media editor like other journals do. Lydia, our managing editor, handles most of the posting and tweeting, and she does a great job, with the genre editors Amber Nicole Brooks, Michael Diebert, and Buell Lisner pitching in. But maintaining a presence in social media is challenging—it’s a part of PR that didn’t used to exist—and you have to pay attention to its trends and quirks. The same is true with our website and its blog. Another challenge I anticipate is how to respond to the journal’s growth, because it definitely continues to grow. We have to be creative with all of our resources—staff, time, funding—and that will no doubt be even more true in the future. The businessy, logistical aspect of running TCR will be a future challenge because it always is. That’s just part of the job for any editor of any literary journal.
Yes, we adopted this logo because it seemed to marry our mission of honoring both The Chattahoochee’s history, its devotion to Southern writers, and its evolving inclusivity, its desire to find great voices—no matter whether it be in the Southwest, in Michigan, or in Denmark, for that matter. We do publish translations, and we love translations. We love writers who can capture any sense of place. But, as we are still published in Atlanta, the largest city in the South, and we are surrounded by great Southern writers, writers who, incidentally, are redefining what it means to be Southern, our “soft spot” will always be the Southern writer. We don't love the age-old clichés that can find their way into Southern writing—the hard-drinking daddy character, an overemphasis on religion, the past put up on a pedestal, for example. But we love the Southern voice, that sometimes dense, particular, and subjective—or “talky,” if you will—voice that says to the reader: I am a storyteller in charge of my story. We like a sense of place; we like pine trees and the vulnerable Gulf Coast. We like the small town where a certain kind of festering can happen. We like the underdog protagonist. We did an interview several years ago about “Redneck Noir,” a movement of sorts where Southern writers in particular working-class characters/lives; you see these kinds of stories and poems in our pages. We like the defeated but defiant character that is the South itself, especially when it confronts new ideas. I mean, if you want to just ask me, well, I am as Southern as they come. But I love and understand the South more and more when I have context around it, when I travel and read and learn about other places. The same might be said for the work in The Chattahoochee Review. We tend to think there is a conversation that happens between our pieces, and we always expect that a piece from Alabama or Appalachian North Carolina, for example, will have something very interesting to say to a piece from Mexico or Canada or California.
With the use of Submittable and the ease of the online submission process, literary journals may receive hundreds or thousands of submissions for every one they are able to accept. What are some of the things that make a submission stand out to you?
This is such a great and hard-to-answer question because it’s getting at the “magic” of a good piece of writing, which is so particular and individual. But, actually, the word “urgent” comes to mind for all the writing, in every genre, that we favor. We want to feel the writer’s investment, the urgency of that story, that poem, that essay. Such urgency is usually achieved via voice or the seemingly simple (it can never seem difficult even though it is) and fresh use of language, language that surprises. That urgency might be clever use of structure, where the writer might not offer much plot, but the organization, or sometimes the deconstruction, fragmentation of, that plot creates intrigue. Writers often make the mistake of sending us work, stories in this case, where nothing happens for four or five pages, or poems in which the connectivity, the movement from idea to idea, is very predictable. So, sometimes that urgency is about the writer’s process of discovery, that old adage of every creative writing teacher that does still apply. There must be urgency on the first page of any story, in the first stanza of any poem. We respond to writing that is surprising (and even delighting) the author as much as it is the reader. To give just a few examples of some writers that we’ve recently published: John Brandon, Paul Hostovsky, Jamaal May, Julialicia Case, Angela Morales, Ann Hood, Patrick Ryan, Alan Michael Parker, Phong Nguyen, Tamas Dobozy, Ann Pancake, Jill Osier, and Yuri Herrera.
We want to feel the writer’s investment, the urgency of that story, that poem, that essay.
Are there factors other than the quality of the work that would make you less likely to accept a submission? Themes you are seeing too often? Pet peeves? How much weight do you give to the cover letter?
Some writers mistake “literary” for “slow” or “meandering” when that’s not the case at all. For example, we get our share of story submissions that are stagnant and depend too heavily on character interiority rather than character interaction. In other words, there’s too much focus on what the protagonist thinks rather than how he/she reacts/responds. In poetry, again, it goes back to predictability, where nothing in the poem is fresh or surprising. In nonfiction, it’s the personal essay that’s too personal, that does nothing to universalize the writer’s individual story. Unfortunately, the essays about cancer or aging or divorce tend to fall into this last category. As far as pet peeves go, I guess it would be sloppiness—work that simply needs more editing, more polishing before it has a chance to compete. And while a cover letter is definitely a necessary part of submitting, we actually try not to pay attention to cover letters. We don’t want to be influenced by a submitter’s previous publications—we want the work alone to influence our decision to decline or accept. A cover letter should primarily demonstrate professionalism.
What advice would you give to writers who hope to publish in The Chattahoochee Review?
All publishing is, to a large degree, determined by timing and luck. We do receive about 4300 submissions a year. That being said, writers can avoid making some very common mistakes if they want to increase their chances of being published in The Chattahoochee Review. As I mentioned above, the first advice would be not to submit sloppy work. Have a piece to submit that is ready. In other words, be in a critique group or have a trusted friend or two or three who have read the work and offered their approval. Know that the work is the best it can be, and then submit. Another very important piece of advice is to be familiar with what we publish. Buy an issue or a subscription and learn our preferences. All journals have preferences, and submitters need to know them if they don’t want to waste their time. For example, we don’t typically publish highly experimental work. We prefer traditional stories with strong voices and characters, poetry that uses language with urgency and innovation, and nonfiction that tells a personal story while also engaging issues in the world at large. Also, if you get rejected, keep submitting. I can’t tell you how many writers we’ve published who had submitted five or six times before we accepted their work. Sometimes, it is just a matter of fit and timing, especially when it comes to our special-focus issues. You might submit a poem that we love, but if it is very much like another poem we already have placed in an issue, we will be forced to decline. Another thing to consider is doing a book review, translation, or interview for us—that’s a good way to get your foot in the door if you want to publish other creative work with TCR. We accept queries for these, info for which is available on our website.
Is there anything else that you would like readers and writers to know about The Chattahoochee Review?
Yes, we have two contests that will open on November 1, the Lamar York Prize for Nonfiction, which has been around for over a decade, and the Lamar York Prize for Fiction, which my editorial staff created three years ago. We typically get many submissions for these—more fiction than nonfiction, which is worth noting to all those essayists out there—but it’s still a great thing for writers to consider. The $18 fee includes a one-year subscription and, in addition to the winning pieces, we usually publish several pieces that were finalists. And the prize money is $1000. It’s important, I think, that serious writers enter contests. It keeps them competitive, in the good sense, and it helps sustain literary journals, the very thing that sustains them. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, which is how I like to think at large about any literary journal and its supporters.
Also, we want our readers and writers to know that we love them. The Chattahoochee Review loves our community of readers and writers. With writers, even those whom we reject, we are on their side. Rejecting someone is always hard for us, even after all this time of getting used to it, because we (the editors) are all writers who have been on the other side of the dreaded rejection note. We get it. We might say no, but we’d still love to have a beer with you, discuss Flannery O’Connor or Jericho Brown or Anthony Doerr, and then encourage you to go home and write.
Jennifer Stern’s fiction has appeared in Hobart, Gulf Stream, and Blue Mesa Review among other journals, has received honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and was selected for inclusion in The Masters Review Anthology. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College.