An Interview with the Prose Editors

Today on the blog, prose editors Tracie Dawson and Rebecca Landau interview each other while browsing their respective bookshelves, allowing us a glimpse into not only their reading tastes, but also how they see reading as integral to the writing process.

What’s your day like as an editor?

Rebecca Landau: “Must Do List: Balance checkbook. Get inspection sticker for Park Ave. Replace bumper. (Note to self: bumper replacement necessary for inspection sticker?) Scrub squirrel/mouse smudge so kids can do summer plays in garage.
Should Do List: Clean basement. (Recent rain caused mini-flood, which ruined boxes/shipping materials stockpiled for Xmas. Also, guinea pig cage was like floating around. Moved to top of washer. Now, when doing laundry, must move cage temporarily back into water.)
When will I have sufficient leisure/wealth to sit on hay-bale watching moon rise, while in luxurious mansion family sleeps? At that time, will have chance to reflect deeply on meaning of life etc., etc. Have a feeling and have always had a feeling that this and other good things will happen for us!”
—“The Semplica Girl Diaries” by George Saunders (from Tenth of December)

What do you wish your day was like as an editor?
Tracie Dawson: “No time is passing outside you at all. It is amazing. The late ballet below is slow motion, the overbroad movements of mimes in blue jelly. If you wanted you could really stay here forever, vibrating inside so fast you float motionless in time, like a bee over something sweet.”
—“Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace (from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men)

What's your spirit animal?
RL: “. . . a great dog, a giant black outlaw named Mica, who runs through the streets of Iowa City at night, inspecting garbage cans. She’s big and friendly but a bad judge of character, and frequently runs right into the arms of the dogcatcher.”
—“The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard

What do you think cats dream?
TD: “At night they dream, long clandestine dreams, confused and obscured by shadows. They dream of plunging their hands into the earth, which is red as blood and soft, which is milky and warm. They dream that the earth gathers itself under their hands, swells, changes its form, flowers into a thousand shapes, for them too, for them once more. They dream of apples; they dream of the creation of the world; they dream of freedom.”
—“Simmering” by Margaret Atwood (from Murder in the Dark)

What are you looking for in a writer or story? (Read: describe your ideal man.)
RL: “He’s a writer. He wants to write a story. It’s been a long time since he wrote his last story, and he misses it. He misses the feeling of creating something out of something. That’s right—something out of something. Because something out of nothing is when you make something up out of thin air, in which case it has no value. Anybody can do that. But when it’s something out of something, that means it was really there the whole time, inside you, and you discover it as part of something new, that’s never happened before. The man decides to write a story about the situation. Not the political situation and not the social situation either. He decides to write a story about the human situation, the human condition. The human condition the way he’s experiencing it right now.”
—“Suddenly, A Knock on the Door” by EtgarKeret (from Suddenly, A Knock on the Door)

How do you see Yemassee as being differentfrom other journals?
TD: “You know that you are the only person who shakes his head in exasperation when I insist on making jokes and small talk, when I refuse to be direct. No one else has ever minded this as you do. You are alone in wanting me always to say something that is true.”
—“Donal Webster” by Colm Tóibín (from The Book of Other People)

What's your advice to writers?
RL:  1.) “Keep your shoes on your feet. Mouth shut, shoes on feet. Do not chew on your new penny loafers. Do not.”
— St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell
2.)  “As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.” —“The Sun, The Moon, The Stars” by Junot Diaz (from This Is How You Lose Her)
3.)  “Head downstairs to the coffeepot.” —“A Temporary Matter” by Jhumpa Lahiri (from Interpreter of Maladies)

TD: “Do not complain. Work harder. Spend more time alone.” —Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Is there anything that has surprised you about editing a literary journal?
TD: “I still have the same strengths and weaknesses. It seems I am of a literary rather than a scientific turn. An example is the fact that I can't write numbers properly. They end up looking like the decorative ancient cursive syllabary. Learning to drive a car is out of the question. I am incapable of operating an ordinary still camera or even putting flluid in a cigarette lighter. […] However, this kind of defense now serves no purpose, and my only reason for bring it up is to say that it was then that the path I would take in life became clear to me. It was the path of literature and art.”
—“The Goblin's Nose” by Akira Kurosawa (from Something Like an Autobiography)

What's the type of story you’re not looking for?
RL: “She would not have let one of her students write the scene this way. Not with the pouring rain and the wife’s broken umbrella and the girl in her long black coat. To begin with, she’d suggest taking out the first scene on the subway, the boring one, where thewife pretends to be a Buddhist. (I am a person, she is a person, I am a person, she is a person, etc. etc.) Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?”
The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Based on your experience as an editor, what have you learned about writing?
TD: “Scott says: 'That’s a six-year supply.'
“He says: 'Course, you could say, it’s not in the spirit of one day at a time. But see, I might be able to handle ordering $3,722 worth of cheese on one day but not be able to handle buying, you know, an 8 oz stick of Monterrey Jack on an as-needed basis daily or bi-daily or weekly for years. Maybe that single day is the only day I can count on being able to get through, you know, the shit associated with cheese acquisition. Just because I can do it once doesn’t mean I can do it thousands of times.'
“Baker says: 'Yeah. Yeah. I see that. It’s like, you pay $3,722 so you can buy cheese in a single take.' “He says: 'Is that really $3,722 worth of cheese?'”

—“Recovery” by Helen DeWitt

Describe your own personal take on religion.
RL: “When I was young, I believed that the arc and swoop of telephone wires along the roadways was beautiful. I believed that the telephone poles, with their transformers catching the evening sun, were glorious. I believed my father when he said, ‘My dad could raise a pole by himself.’ And I believed that the telephone itself was a miracle. Now, I tell my sister, these poles, these wires, do not look the same to me. Nothing is innocent, my sister reminds me. But nothing, I would like to think, remains unrepentant.”
—“Time and Distance Overcome” by Eula Biss (from Notes From No Man’s Land)

TD: “Do you have doubts about life? Are you unsure if it is worth the trouble? Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person's face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street, and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It's okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.”
—“The Shared Patio” by Miranda July (from No One Belongs Here More Than You)

Tracie Dawson has work in New World Writing, Word Riot, and Rabbit Catastrophe Review, among other places, and is currently working on a road novel in which no one does drugs or goes on the lam even once. She will be voting for the Oxford Comma in the next election. Debate with her @trdwsn.

Rebecca Landau spent her summer as a Writer-in-Residence at Art Farm in Nebraska. A winner of the 2013 Havilah Babcock Short Story Contest, she is currently working on a short story collection titled Dirt. An avid hiker, Rebecca summited her first mountain, Harney Peak, at age 2. She hails from Sugar Tit, SC and lazily tweets @rebeccalandau.