Today's interviewee is a very busy lady, who makes the time to edit and publish prolifically while also doing her thing as a wife and mom. Most recently she is the author of the novel A Life in Men, a very well-received book centering on two best friends, one of whom, Mary, has cystic fibrosis and is not expected to live a long life. Intending to give Mary a wild trip of a lifetime, the two embark to Greece, but instead their friendship unravels in unexpected violence and tragedy, leaving Mary--who against all odds becomes an avid traveler and adventurer for the next decade--to decipher the reverberating weight of their choices.
Gina is also the author of the short story collection Slut Lullabies and the novel My Sister's Continent. For ten years she served as the Editor of the award-winning literary magazine, Other Voices, and in 2005 she co-founded its book imprint, Other Voices Books, where she is the Executive Editor. Gina also edits the fiction section of the popular online literary collective, The Nervous Breakdown and is the weekend editor of the Rumpus. On top of this, she also runs a writing program out of Mexico, Other Voices Queretaro. You can find more about her here.
What, do you think, do writers most frequently get wrong about what editors do and how they think?
I mean, "editors" is a broad category. But in today's industry, with so many DIY presses, micropresses, nonprofit presses, and small for-profit indies that don't really make a profit, not to mention an immense online magazine culture where often neither the writers nor the editors are paid, I think that most beginning writers, and even some fairly established writers, simply don't realize what a large portion of the editors in this country work either for free or for nothing resembling a living wage, as a labor of pure, unadulterated love. Even among the editors at the big trade houses in New York, editors as a whole don't earn as much money as, say, literary agents who are getting percentages of advances, for example. What I mean is, I think too few writers understand that the only reason anyone, ever, would be an editor--really of any kind--is out of a mad and passionate love of books and a desire to champion and discover writers. That if we ever appear inaccessible, it's only a matter of being totally inundated with submissions, of also having other day jobs to pay bills, that we just get more good work than we can ever realistically publish and that we have no choice but to sometimes reject talented writers, not because we don't care about them or are some lofty, snooty gatekeepers but because of time and space and financial limitations on what we're capable of doing. I've never met an editor, even at the larger houses, who didn't want to be an advocate for writers and care deeply about the work they publish. And many many editors are regularly going to bat for, say, more challenging and important work at publishing houses, and getting overruled by marketing departments or publishers or shareholders who are concerned with bottom line dollars and sales, whereas most editors are concerned first and foremost about the work, not about business matters.
What has evolved about what is important to you as a writer over the years?
Well, many things, of course. One might be that, as a writer, I think my earlier work was aimed in a very focused way on exploring issues that made me angry and frustrated as a person in the world--as a woman, or as someone who had grown up below the poverty line, for example, but that as I've gotten older, even though these things still concern me a great deal and I still feel the strong current of them as a driving energy in my work, I think I've become more and more compelled by also exploring the ways people connect and save each other...not only with the power dynamics that harm but with the intimacies that heal. I think my work has a greater emotional range, or more of a spectrum of what's possible between people.
After I published my novel a lot of people tried to pick my brain about the publishing world and I had to admit that I learned nothing from publishing a book that would make the next one easier. What have you NOT learned from your writing and publishing experiences?
I'm not sure we can know what we haven't learned until something happens for which we're clearly unprepared and we can see that we obviously don't know anything about something we thought we understood. But I know that the publishing world consistently surprises everyone who works in it, as a writer or editor. It's a volatile and unpredictable business, while at the same time being strangely consistent. Many of the writers whose work I love most have never "made it" in the huge way I think they deserve; editors and presses I think are doing outstanding work routinely go bankrupt or get fired...it's very hard to "call" what projects will hit it big. Yet on the other hand, most predictions about radical market trends and upheavals, such as that print books would go the way of the dodo, or that all writers need to have blogs and be Twitter gods, rarely turn out to be as unilaterally true as the hype surrounding them, and are proven to be hyperbole within a few years.
What's your process for preparing and executing an interview?
My process for prepping to interview someone ranges from writing and revising interview questions to sometimes having a stiff drink before i get the nerve to call some writer I worship who has consented to give me an hour on the phone, so that I don't have a heart attack with nerves while dialing Margaret Atwood! I certainly give a lot more obsessive thought to what questions I ask someone than I do to answering questions that are asked of me.
What bad habits do you have that you're trying to break (as a writer or other?)
My current life is so busy that my biggest bad habit is simply not finding the time to write. We all have bad habits as writers, but my biggest struggle by far, between two editorships, a professorship, three kids, elderly parents who live downstairs, and of course now being on tour for A Life in Men, is just ever getting myself to the page to write, period. Time is a very serious issue for me. I have the "bad habit" of having a chaotically busy life, and other passions and necessities taking precedence over my writing time.
What excerpts are you reading on tour, and why did you choose those?
I've been reading a few different ones from the Kenya chapter, which I find excerpts well as it's fairly early in the novel and is all from Mary's point of view (whereas the other chapters have a more roving point of view). Though I also like reading the scene where Mary coughs blood on the Tube in London, early in her friendship with Yank. That section is both intense and yet highly self-contained, which can be a hard combo to find.
Please rank your book covers from most favorite to slightly-less favorite.
That's a hard question. They all have things I love and things that I love less. I am madly in love with the piece of art that served as the cover for My Sister's Continent, which was a photograph by Robin Hahn. But the colors didn't really come across in the cover--they were less vibrant and the cover was a bit too dark. I didn't love the photograph Algonquin used for my A Life in Men cover nearly as much in its original state, but I love what Algonquin's art director did with shifting colors and the distressed texturing of the image and the addition of the airplane. It's hard to beat a nipple on your front cover! Slut Lullabies' cover was a cropped photo by my good friend Susan Aurinko, whose work I adore.
What's your reaction, typically, when you read screeds about how writers shouldn't give their work away for free?
I think it's complex. I have worked for free, as an editor and a writer, for most of my career. I teach for an income. I have immense agreement in principle with the fact that writers should be paid for their work, but as an editor and someone who founded an indie press, I also know that many times even the people running a publication are not paid, and in fact may be putting in their own money to keep something afloat, which without the generous support of Dzanc Books or of granting organizations would have been the case at Other Voices Books. The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown are both comprised of numerous editors who work part-time for free...I mean, I've held my position at TNB since 2009, and at the Rumpus since 2011, so as much as I would love to pay every writer I publish, clearly I myself have given countless hours to both venues without pay, more so than, say, when I write a single piece for HuffPo or The Weeklings and don't get paid for that work as a writer. So it's just complicated. Writers should be paid. Of course. But should a writer refuse to get their work out on a site that may have hundreds of thousands of monthly readers, because that site honestly cannot afford to pay them, and even the founder and curator isn't making a living from it? Exposure isn't worthless either. Connecting with readers isn't worthless, to put it mildly. And the most important work isn't always the work that's most fairly compensated. I think writers should do what they feel is best for their own career and their own value system. I respect the position of a writer who won't give work away without compensation, but it's not a position I myself have taken, and I don't regret that. I've seen many writers who attempt to create a clear correlation between their writing and the economic system end up compromising their original literary impulses so as to suit what the culture values economically. And that's fine. It's not a choice every writer wishes to make. There is value in art beyond just the economic structure of the culture, and that has been true in every literary/artistic generation.
Who reads your stuff first and why?
My writing group, and a couple of other close friends. There are a lot of reasons, one of which is just trust and mutual respect built over years, but also because we have made commitments to one another to prioritize each other's work in terms of making time for it in a quick way. That's a big commitment to make for one another and having a stable group of people who will give you that is invaluable.
What are you reading right now? Do you typically read one thing at a time or spread out?
I read student work, submitted work and published work all in tandem, all the time. I just started The Goldfinch, at last. But before I finish it I will probably have started three other books, too. If I'm only reading one thing, it's a sign of deep love.
How does it feel to be the 377th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
That's cool--congrats on having so many writers on the site, and thanks for having me.