On Editing Prose, the Gender Gap in Publishing, and Eating Alligator! Add alt text to describe what's in the image.

On Editing Prose, the Gender Gap in Publishing, and Eating Alligator!

A chat with Cara Blue Adams, Editor of Southern Review

Cara Blue Adams's fiction has appeared in Narrative, The Kenyon Review, and The Sun, among other journals. She won the Kenyon Review Short Fiction Prize. She lives in Baton Rouge, where she is the fiction and nonfiction editor of The Southern Review.

Interview by Katie Hunt

I want to start with a silly question. Is there a story behind “Blue”?

That is a good question, not a silly question! My parents were hippies, so when I was conceived they lived in a little shack in the woods in Maine without running water, and had dreams of having a farm. My dad proposed just naming me Blue, as hippie fathers will. And my mother still had enough conventional wisdom left to say, “Well, perhaps we should give her a regular first name, and have her middle name be Blue.” She wanted to name me Carrie, but decided that Carrie Blue sounded too hillbilly, so they shortened it to Cara. She also decided that she might want running water when she actually had a baby, so they moved to Vermont. My father provided the crazy dreams and my mother made them workable.

You are both the fiction and the nonfiction editor at The Southern Review. Is there a difference in what you look for in fiction versus nonfiction? How would you describe what you look for in each genre?

In some ways, there’s so much crossover, especially now. Essays use fictional techniques all the time, and fiction has taken a lot from the nonfiction genre, too.

I do look for different things, though. With fiction, the narrative voice is so crucial. Of course the story is important, too, but I have to have absolute trust in the narrator from the very beginning. And the prose has to be just perfect. The rhythm, the sound – I’m reading it in a way that’s closer to the way I read poetry, maybe, than nonfiction. Those things are also important in nonfiction, but there the subject matter plays such a big role that I’m willing to forgive a narrative voice that needs more attention, or prose that is a little bumpy in places, because I know I can work with the authors on those things if their material is compelling enough and their argument is compelling enough.

So you will go back to the author with edits more often with nonfiction than you do with fiction? Or do you at all with fiction?

I do with both genres, but yes, I do more intensive editing with nonfiction. Occasionally something comes that’s just perfect, and the prose is pitch-perfect. But we do more intensive editing with essays where the subject matter is really compelling and requires a lot of research. Something that’s more like a memoir, I read a little more like fiction, whereas something that’s about the history of horse racing, for example, is a different story.

So what topics have you found really intriguing in nonfiction?

There was a great essay about the history of Paint by Numbers that I thought was fascinating. It was about American nostalgia.

Was that in the Americana issue of The Southern Review [in Spring 2011]?

It was. Alexis Schaitkin was the author. The research and the prose were fantastic – it was one of those essays you’re so happy to find, because it didn’t need much work at all. She had both great reportage and an interesting argument about how nostalgia has always been a part of the American perspective, and how maybe it was built into Paint by Numbers from the start. There’s always this glorious past we’re imagining. She looked at it through the lens of today’s culture.

There was another essay written by a woman who had been an extra in a Fellini movie, Jessica Levine, about that experience. That was wonderful both because the experience was so strange, and because she evoked time and place in a really great way. She takes on questions of feminism, but not in a direct way at all, which was part of what I found compelling. The essay built its argument through scene and through example. It took a situation where you could have made a very reductive argument and opened it up and make it more complex using fictional techniques.

One other that stands out: Abe Streep, who’s an editor at Outside magazine, wrote a wonderful profile of a musician named Rushad Eggleston who transformed bluegrass. He was a student at Berklee, and he started playing the cello in a way that no one had played the cello before, made it a bluegrass instrument. This profile was the sort of thing you’d read in the New Yorker or something – it was really evocative and fascinating. That’s one of my favorite things we’ve published. Rushad has this whole imaginary world he calls the Land of Snee, and he’s made up all these characters, these little green goblins. He’s just a wild, wild character, and a really strange guy to have dropped into the bluegrass community, which is a little bit more conservative, and older. He’s gotten booted from many, many, conferences.

How do you get through all the submissions that you receive? What’s your staff model?

We have a poetry editor, Jessica Faust, and then there’s me, the nonfiction and fiction editor. We also have an editorial assistant, Emily Nemens, who’s a graduate student. She does a lot of going through the mail, flagging what might need immediate attention, and then reading everything else slowly, writing comments, and showing that work to us to make decisions. We used to have the resident scholar program, which we’re hoping to get back at some point. That was phenomenal. We had two postdoctoral students in staff positions, and we’d hire one one year and one the following year, so there were always two at a time, one outgoing and one incoming. They would help us read the slush. But right now it’s basically just the three of us.

Wow, that’s impressive. If you could estimate: how many submissions do you get per reading period?

About 4,000.

How can you possibly get through all those?

It’s a lot of submissions! We read quickly. We did bring in a former editorial assistant last year to help us get through some of the submissions, because we want to get back to people in four to six months. Anything more than that starts to feel, to us, like it’s too long. Even though that is the case with many journals. And with good reason – because they’re short-staffed.

Part of the process is being very careful about deciding what work requires the sort of debate and editorial attention that is very time-consuming – what sorts of stories need to be read three times and discussed by the staff, versus what sorts of stories need to be read once, and then the author needs to get a nice note to say, “Hey, nice images, but why don’t you try us again.” I’ll also say this: I think you know a good essay or a good story very quickly. Some people will say, “I read a page and that’s it.” I don’t have a strict rule like that – I read until I know whether the work can be published or not. And sometimes that’s the final page, and I’ll get to the final page and know that it requires a big revision, and maybe the author wouldn’t want that, because that’s not their vision for the story.

I do feel like the best work carries a sentence-level DNA, in that you can see in a couple of sentences what the central tension will be, what the writer’s perspective on the world is. And then, in the best stories, that blossoms, comes into being, as the story progresses. So I think you know pretty quickly whether or not that DNA is there after you’ve had some practice reading. Which isn’t to say you don’t occasionally read a story that really starts on page 3, where the writer hits his or her stride. We do see those stories, and we work with those people. But it’s rare.

You don’t currently take online submissions. Why not? Do you have any plans to?

Online submissions are great when people are reading for a magazine in a decentralized way. And they are obviously very convenient for the writer. I would never want to read a work I was seriously considering just on the screen, though. I’ve felt for a long time that I have less patience when I read onscreen than when I read in print. I read a study recently about eye movement when people read; when you read something that’s printed out, you read left to right, like the prose is laid out. But when you read online, your eyes move in the shape of the letter F or Z. You scan the top, then you quickly scan down across the page, and then you scan the bottom. People don’t seem to read with the same amount of care, or at least linearity, as they do when they are reading the printed page.

So if we moved to online submissions, I’d want to know that work was being read with the same care as when we read print submissions. One thing we’ve looked at is the Kindle, because I think people do read in a more print-like way when they read the Kindle. It’s not backlit, and you don’t have those competing forces you do when reading online with your browser open – “Oh, I’m going to look up the history of Senegal right now to better understand this essay.” So you’re not distracted in the same way. And the eyestrain isn’t the same. I think online submissions are a great thing for a lot of magazines and a lot of writers, but I also think there are some perils there, and that’s something we’re thinking about carefully as we move forward.

What is The Southern Review’s relationship with Louisiana State University Press?

Well, we recently merged with the Press, which has been a tremendous boon to the journal. It has given us access to all of the Press’s resources – marketing expertise, financial expertise, editing expertise – and some great things have come out of that collaboration already. One of the editors was saying to me that she was looking for books about the environment, for example, and I knew a great environmental writer, so I put them in touch, and that book is now under consideration at the Press.

MaryKatherine Callaway, who is the director of the Press, is an incredible leader. She’s very smart, very savvy about the publishing landscape and the ways it’s changing. She fosters discussion about those questions, but also provides clear leadership. She is great at choosing great people and then letting them do their jobs. So the Press is a really collegial, friendly environment. It’s a place where I can go to the marketing team and say, “Hey, I have this idea. What do you guys think – is it crazy?” And they’ll tell me what they think. And then we can go to MaryKatherine and say, “Hey, we want to do this thing; what do you think?” And she’ll say, “OK, tell me why, and how,” and we’ll tell her, and if it makes sense she’ll say, “How can I help make it happen?”

Now I should ask you about fiction – any themes, and particular pieces that have popped up lately that you’ve been really excited about?

One of the stories that comes to mind right away is a story by Jaquira Díaz, called “Section 8.” I actually found it as I was going through the mail. Up until recently, I would go through the mail and pull out the things that seemed the most promising to look at as soon as I could. (Now, our graduate assistant does this.) This story I initially thought would be one of those stories that you know quickly isn’t going to work, because you get a lot of people writing about the kind of experience it describes without actually knowing much about it. But after a paragraph I started falling in love with it, and wanted to read the whole thing right away. So I went from skeptical to totally won over in about five sentences, and read the story that day, and I think we called to take it the next day. It was our fastest acceptance ever.

She was writing about two adolescent girls growing up in Miami Beach, in a very poor area, and one of the girls is a lesbian, and the other is deciding whether or not to identify as a lesbian. It’s not something that’s accepted by their community. It’s about their friendship: it’s sort of a coming-of-age story. The ending could become very sentimental, but it’s just devastating. It does the thing you think it won’t do, that you’ll never forget. I won’t give it away! I love that story.

I remember seeing that author’s name actually, because I was doing an informal count by gender of your authors.

What did you find? I’ve done the same count, so I expect I know about what it will be.

It was highly unscientific: I just looked at the three most recent issues. It was actually pretty even. There were slightly fewer women than men, but there were also a couple names each issue that could go either way, so I couldn’t tell precisely. But it was really close to even. And I was wondering if that was by design, or just by accident.

A little bit of both. If we see that an issue is skewing one direction or another – and that’s in terms of gender, writers we’ve published before versus writers we haven’t, memoir versus criticism; we think broadly about diversity in each issue – we do try to reach out to people and say, “Hey, why don’t you send me some work?”

We also have the luxury, since we’re quarterly, of filling several issues at once, so we can move things around. Sometimes I might have two long critical pieces about dead writers, say, and I’ll put one in the autumn issue and one in the winter issue, and I’ll try to put in a lighter piece or a more personal piece of nonfiction in each issue. Gender is something that we think about, too.

As far as all the ways you try to balance the issues, is there something that you find you’re often looking for, that you have to reach out for more?

Nonfiction that’s about something other than the author’s personal experience. Researched essays. I love to learn something when I read, and I think it’s a hard sort of essay to write, because it involves a lot of research time. There are really great paying markets for nonfiction, which maybe siphons away work.

In terms of diversity, I think there are all sorts of ways that The Southern Review and magazines in general can do a better job. I mean, I can’t think of the last time we published a Native American writer – two years ago, maybe? I don’t think we do a terrible job in terms of diversity, and of course you don’t want to reduce things to quotas, but you do want to make clear to a wide range of writers that the journal could be a good place for their work. Of course, without having some sort of questionnaire that people submit with their work, it’s impossible to know how the stats play out. We do get a fair number of international submissions. We have published, in recent memory, Asian American writers, black writers, Indian American writers, work in translation – so, it’s not as if those things aren’t present. But I think maybe they’re not as present in the literary world in general as I would like.

So that brings me to an interesting question. VIDA [an organization that supports women in the literary arts] has found that there are many more men published than women, and their read on these stats is that it’s not because fewer women are writing, it’s because for some reason fewer women are getting published. What’s your take on the gender divide?

It’s something I’ve thought a lot about. It’s an incredibly complex question, and one that, without a lot more information, it would be impossible to say much about definitively. But I think that it’s systemic, and that the responsibility doesn’t rest with editors, it doesn’t rest with writers, it doesn’t rest with any one group; parts of that responsibility rest with everyone.

There are factors in play that are beyond anyone's control. I think that women maybe have less time to write – you know, you read that women still do more housework than men do even though they’re working the same number of hours at their professional jobs, they do more childcare – I think there are all sorts of things like that that prevent women from writing as much or from sending out as much. There are social expectations that may keep women from aggressively pursuing opportunities the way that men might. I think that it’s good for women to remember to look to their male counterparts as models for how to pursue getting published. Even if it feels uncomfortable to send work to someone they’ve just met, when they’ve been invited to do it – go ahead and do it.

I also think that finding mentors is sometimes a unique problem for women. Women are great at forming friendships, having social interactions, but somehow that doesn’t translate into professional mentorship in the way it does for men. A lot of editors now are women, so you’d think that would translate into more women being published, but I’m not sure that’s actually the case. So that’s something I’ve thought about – how I can do a better job mentoring women? And not just women, but any groups who have been historically underrepresented.

So what strategies do you employ to achieve that?

I was just talking to Ladette [Randolph] at Ploughshares about this, and one thing I’ve been trying to do is to make a list of writers whose work I love, and who I want to see more work from, and I email them. This list might include people we’ve published before, and also people I’ve just read in a journal. And so far – this is a very small sample size, but I’ve found that the men are faster about sending me work, so I revisit this list after, say, three months, and send another email to everybody who hasn’t sent me work. It’s often on that second round that some of the men who are more retiring, maybe, send me work, and a lot of the women send me work. I try to remember that these relationships are ongoing, and that sometimes you need to invite people in a different way, or a more extended way, to send you work.

I know this is total speculation, but what do you think accounts for that difference?

It’s hard to know. I think part of it might be that men see a friendship as something that logically extends into the professional world, where women will sometimes express hesitation and will say, “I wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable about me sending you work” if we know each other personally, even if we met in a professional setting or because I admire their work, as is often the case! Guys won’t typically express that reservation.

Maybe some of that also has to do with feeling like your voice is important, or has a place. Maybe women are still struggling to feel like they’re allowed to or supposed to be heard. So maybe they’re setting a higher bar for themselves or asking themselves different questions about their work. Of course, these are gross generalizations and wild speculation, and plenty of women aren’t that way, and plenty of men aren’t that way! But it does seem like cultural norms do shape those behaviors or expectations.

How do you feel like your experience as an editor at The Southern Review has shaped the way you submit work, respond to solicitations, that sort of thing?

It’s been an object lesson, I think, in exactly this kind of thing. I know that I myself have those worries. This is something I’ve been conscious of in other arenas for years and years. I went to Smith as an undergraduate, and have done a lot of thinking and reading about gender and society. I remember one thing I read before I took my first job, which was at a law firm: one of the reasons there’s still such a big wage gap is that women tend not to negotiate for a higher starting salary, and then they tend not to ask for raises. So even though it was incredibly uncomfortable, when I got my first job offer, I negotiated. I felt like they were going to rescind the offer. But it wasn’t about the money so much; I felt some sort of duty to confront that tendency in myself. They said, “How about this much?” and I said, “How about this much?” And we met in the middle.

And how does that experience translate into the creative writing world?

Even after that, when I moved into the writing world, still there was that sense that it was inappropriate, or it was pushy, that if someone asked to see work they were just being polite, and I’d have a reluctance to send. I had that fear that the offer would be rescinded, or that I would ruin a good thing – that it was a compliment, and that’s where it ended. Even though I reminded myself that wasn’t the way I wanted to be in the world, I still had those fears.

And now, I realize that, as an editor, it takes extra time to reach out to people twice. To keep that list. That helps me think about my role as a writer differently. Now when someone extends an offer, I try to be better about saying, “OK, yes. Thank you so much; here’s something to consider.” Even if I’m not sure it’s great. Let them make that decision, instead of waiting two years to come to the decision myself that, yes, maybe I can show this to someone. I have also realized that I have no compunction about rejecting friends’ work – the more you’re in the writing world, the more you become friends with writers you love, and so if you were to publish all of your friends, you’d have to publish an issue every week. It would be impossible, as well as silly and unethical and not what any of us want, to be published for social reasons. And now that I know that about myself, I know not to hesitate to send work to someone I’m friendly with. Because I know that if I were them and the work wasn’t good, I’d say, “Hey, this isn’t for us. Try us again.”

Of course, I don’t mean to talk as if we don’t regularly publish people we’ve never heard of before who we find through the slush pile – all the writers I mentioned above were people I’d never read or met before we published them – or that sending or not sending when invited is the crucial problem regarding gender and publishing. It’s just one symptom of a larger pattern none of us fully understand.

Jeanne Leiby was the first female editor of The Southern Review. Do you think her taking that job changed or shepherded The Southern Review’s aesthetic in a different way?

Every editor of course has their own particular editorial bent. Her interests included Polish literature, and Detroit, Michigan, where she grew up – she loved those things. I don’t know if it changed things in terms of gender, but I do think that seeing a female editor – like seeing a black editor, seeing a gay editor, seeing an editor who’s more like you – helps those groups of writers think, “Oh, maybe there’s a place for my work.” The fact that she wasn’t from the south, the fact that she was female, the fact that she was younger, may have changed how submitters perceived the magazine.

So most of the previous editors have been Southerners?

Most of them have been Southerners. That tradition was still important through Jeanne’s tenure, and is still important to the journal. I don’t think that’s anything we’d ever want to give up. I think it’s nice that the magazine has a defined aesthetic and a defined regional sense, even if we don’t have a regional bias in terms of what we publish. But of course we have a national and international reach, and Jeanne worked hard to extend that reach.

Jeanne Leiby very sadly died in a car accident last spring. How did it affect The Southern Review and you personally, and how you work now?

It was obviously a huge tragedy – she was very young. We had just merged with LSU Press, and Jeanne had given Jessica and me a great deal of autonomy, which was very generous of her. I was doing a lot of the prose editing, and Jessica was doing a lot of the poetry editing, so when she died, we were able – because we were a very close-knit staff, and because the Press was there – to both mourn her death and carry on the work of the journal. We were prepared to do that, because we had been doing a lot of that work already under her leadership. LSU Press, MaryKatherine Calloway, and the university have been tremendous in supporting us. We were very lucky in that way.

What legacy do you feel like the journal will keep from Jeanne?

She had a great amount of enthusiasm, and she was really excited about things like the resident scholar program, which involved reaching out to newer writers and nurturing them, giving them a place to work, a place to be read, a place to find a home. That’s something we all hope to carry on. And then, her interest in international writing – it certainly wasn’t new for the journal, because we’d published literature in translation before, but it was something that she felt strongly about and really advocated for, and that we definitely hope to continue.

So I’m curious about the literary scene in general in Baton Rouge. Is there one, to sound horribly elitist? How would you describe it?

When I first moved here, I read about Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks and the founding of The Southern Review, and how they brought Peter Taylor, who had been an undergraduate at Kenyon, down to Baton Rouge on a fellowship that I believe they essentially created to give him a place to write. And Jean Stafford was the office manager. So there was this literary community that was both of the place and not of the place. And I think that’s still true today, that there are lots of great Southern writers who are from the area and active in the literary scene, and then there’s a very vibrant community of writers who are from other places.

The MFA program at LSU is just fantastic – it might be the best-kept secret in the literary world. They have great fellowships, a great community, the faculty are really giving and really active. I think it would be a fantastic program to attend. And they get really wonderful writers. They all contribute a lot to the literary community, as do writers who are from the place. It’s very vibrant, and it’s always changing because people are always coming and going.

Of course New Orleans has a big literary scene, but Baton Rouge has its own very unique, very active scene. There’s a reading series called River Writers which takes place every other Tuesday night at a bar called Boudreaux and Thibodeaux’s, and it’s kind of an institution. It’s very ad hoc and improvisational, as many things are in Louisiana, and a lot of fun. Some nights they might put on a play, sometimes anyone who shows up can read. The undergrads also have reading series, so every night of the week it seems like you can go to something. There’s this incredible vitality.

This is very abstract, but could you define a style from Baton Rouge?

The poets tend to be very avant-garde and experimental, which I really love. I remember one reading where the poet, Afton Wilky, gave everyone a different book, and had everyone start reading from their books at different points in time. It was incredible. There’s no one style, I think, but there’s an embrace of different styles, which is exciting. A writer I met through The Southern Review who is now a good friend, Susan Kirby-Smith, writes plays and puts them on. She wrote one in which a woman goes to a bar, and her organs are characters. So she’s having a drink with her liver, and she meets a guy who’s having a drink with his liver, and her social anxiety shows up and so does his, and her sex drive shows up and so does his, and they’re all hanging out at the bar together. She staged that at River Writers.

There’s a lot of freeness. There’s a sense that you can do whatever you want to do, and everyone’s going to be curious and they’re going to come, and they’re going to listen. It just feels very Louisiana to me, like jazz, which is improvisational and sort of wild.

. . . And I’m sure you wanted to ask what alligator tastes like?

I definitely did. And is it smeared all over the pages before the journal goes to press?

We try to keep it off the pages! You know, I was disappointed – it was a little bit rubbery and a little bit gamey. I was hoping it would be delicious. It tastes kind of like what you would imagine when you look at an alligator. But you can get alligator sushi, which is better than the fried alligator. I would recommend the alligator sushi.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell me that’s important to understanding you, or The Southern Review and your editorial vision?

Do you know what a nutria is?

I’ve heard of a thing called “nutria itch.” It’s something in Louisiana – you go into the swamp and you get itchy? But tell me about nutria.

They’re emblematic of Louisiana, in a way, or my relationship with Louisiana. They’re familiar: they’re an animal that you want to pick up and cuddle because they look a little bit like a rabbit or a hamster. But then they have these long tails, and these big orange buckteeth. They’re wild looking. I went on a swamp tour and they had a tame nutria that you could pet. It was just the cutest thing. But then you see them running in packs around the lake, and it’s deeply strange. That’s Louisiana to me – it’s so familiar in some ways, and so inviting and warm, and then you have moments when you’re totally startled by the strangeness. Maybe that’s also what I look for in work: something that’s inviting and familiar, and also strange and unexpected.

Katherine Hunt is a reader, writer, and editor in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her writing has appeared in Cranky, Red Mountain Review, Fringe, and Blood Lotus. A writing workshop she ran as a volunteer at 826 Boston is featured in the 2011 book Don't Forget to Write, published by 826 National.