"If You're Alive You're Recovering."
Mary Akers is the author of the short-story collection Women Up On Blocks, which won the 2010 IPPY gold medal for short fiction. Her work has appeared Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, and Brevity. She was awarded a 2012 Pushcart Special Mention and won the 2011 American Pen Women Mary Mackey Short Story Prize for her story, “Viewing Medusa.” She has been the editor of r.kv.r.y since 2010 and lives in Western New York with her family.
Interview by Jessica Ullian
You became the editor of r.kv.r.y via Facebook. Can you share that story?
In 2010, Victoria Pynchon, the founding editor, was having trouble keeping up with it, and she put out a call on Facebook for someone to take over the journal. I’d been published in it a couple of times, but I’d never run a journal before, and I wanted the other side of the desk experience, and I said, “I’ll try it.” I’d never met her, but I loved what she was doing with the magazine — I liked that it was online, that she had a mix of established and new authors. But I was in for a lot more than I knew!
Why would a perfectly happy writer want to become a journal editor?
I ask myself that sometimes! I love working with other writers to get their work — I do almost all of the final edits with authors myself, and I get good feedback, that they’ve liked my input. I’ve met some great authors, and I get to solicit authors who I love —Margaret Atwood, Anthony Doerr, Dylan Landis. I just write them and say I’m a huge fan, can you send us anything? And they give it to us. Sometimes it’s reprints, but if you’re a journal about recovery why wouldn’t you take reprints?
It’s been a real trip. I like having my hands in there. Victoria always had fantastic art, and because my undergraduate degree was in fine arts, I’ve taken that a step further: I have an artist adopt each issue and I have each artist read every piece, and give me something. By adopting the issue I get their aesthetic in there, too.
Also, it’s been really good for me in terms of learning about rejection from the other side; it’s a lot less personal. You get a lot of stuff, and you’ve gotta reject 90 percent of it. It’s a sad fact. And that’s that, each issue. Rejection isn’t personal – R.I.P. I can’t say it enough.
The theme of recovery meant something very specific to Victoria — recovery from alcoholism, from a stifling career, from a failed marriage. What has it meant to you?
My kids like to tease me about this: I was defending someone who my middle daughter thought didn’t warrant it, and she said, “Mom, you think Voldemort just had a bad childhood!” And I was like, “Well, didn’t he?” I guess I think that if you’re alive you’re recovering from something, and if you haven’t been at the bottom of some awful place, you will be. There’s any number of ways we all end up in need of recovery.
More personally, my father was an alcoholic, and he died when I was twenty-four, when I’d just had my first child. That’s stayed with me, and I’ve always wished I could have helped him recover. At the same time, I learned you can’t make someone do that.
Is that connection what drew you to the journal as a writer?
No, it’s that they were taking pieces that were in reprints, and I had a couple of pieces in print-only journals that I wanted to get online. The rest was just gravy, that it was recovery themed. But I started looking at my work, and everything I write is about recovery. I guess everyone does, in some way.
It sounds like you backed into a really meaningful connection with the publication.
I totally did, but how many people back into their future spouse, or back into a job?
In your time on the job, what has recovery grown to mean to you?
In terms of accepting work, a lot of journals only want something that’s 100 percent ready to go. And I get that, because it’s a lot of work to help get a piece in shape. But it’s important to me to recognize the value of the kernel, the unpolished gem, and help get it to a place where it really sparkles. In terms of my belief in recovery, I think that also extends to helping an author get something that’s not quite there, there. I take a lot of satisfaction in that, and I think it’s great for authors too. I’ve had editors do that with my work, and what a treat, what an honor.
What about in terms of the topics people explore?
I wish I got more work that took that idea of world recovery into account. I would love to see more of that. No matter who you are, you live on the earth, and it should be important to you. That’s my crusade, I suppose; if everyone has one it would be mine. I cherish those stories when they come in.
I also love stories about gender. I’m really fascinated by the different ways that gender expresses itself in our country, and the ways men and women relate to one another. I’m also interested in LGBT work; a lot of what we publish is through me soliciting it, but we’re not getting it over the transom.
Has any recent work surprised you with its take on the theme?
There was a piece recently, "Hot Glass", that really, really struck me, as a view of alcoholism that I’d never seen before, and I never really knew existed: binge drinking, very occasionally, all by oneself. It really made me think about what is alcoholism and what is substance abuse.
In terms of work that stood out as being really wonderful, that I would like to find more of, Dylan Landis’s piece “Rose” was something that I would like to find more of. I think of her writing as being somatic: you feel it in your body as you read it. I want to find something like that that really takes me there, viscerally, without being a “poor pitiful me” story. Not someone spilling their guts out, but that makes me spill my guts out.
Do you get an excess of personal recovery stories?
We do, and I understand it, and I’m glad people are getting that out – I’m glad for their catharsis. But in the process of doing that, it has to say something about the larger world, say something about the human condition. It has to be relatable, universal, not just navel-gazing. And that’s hard — most recovery stories begin somewhere personal. I feel like every recovery story, or poem, or essay comes from a personal place; the trick is making it personal, but also making it universal.
What do you wish people knew about your magazine?
I wish they knew we were all volunteers, and writers ourselves. I don’t have anybody on my masthead who isn’t also a writer, and we’re very busy people who do this for the love. We’re in it for the love of beautiful writing, art, and conversation, and we’re getting warm fuzzies in return. That’s about it.
Jessica Ullian's fiction has appeared in Upstreet, Slice, and Meeting House. She studied journalism at Columbia University and creative writing at Boston University, and lives in Boston.