Many weeks ago I asked Alexis to see if he'd like to post an interview, and he agreed; we emailed for a while, and after some delay on my part, we finally had something to post. What follows is our discussion about submitting to markets, the founding of his journal Our Stories, the business side of publishing, and what it's like to live in a castle. Alexis graduated from Mason in the spring of '07 (with a concentration in fiction), though I'm sure he'd be quick to point out that he originally enrolled as a poet; it wasn't until after a talk with Bausch, who encouraged him to write fiction, that he switched genres.
You can read another bio of him here at his journal.
Also, look for interviews with Jessica Anthony and Matt Ellsworth in the near future.
And now, on to the interview:
You founded Our Stories in 2006 and released its debut issue that summer, all while working hard to complete your MFA. Since that first issue, I've noticed a few things have changed with the journal: it looks as if your staff has expanded, you've dropped the $20 reading fee for regular submissions, and you've introduced an Emerging Writer Contest with an honorarium of $300 for the winner. Could you describe that transformation for us? What's your experience been like so far working with that unique model (the fact that every submission receives a critical response from your editors)?
Okay, so we started off and really misfired. I really wanted to found a journal that would give feedback. I knew that. I was working for Phoebe and just kind of whipping through stories, hammering out rejections, and I thought, "this is really really stooopid!" and then my next thought was "this is really stooopid, and this is exactly what they do to me too." So that's how it started. So, within a matter of days, I started hammering away at the idea. And my intellectual powerhouse mind did a throw of darts on website names and landed on Slushstories.com. That was the original name of the journal, and the design was completely different. Pathetic name, no? The design was great but the name, yeah, can't believe I came up with that name. The basic business concept was I would charge people to read their stories, give feedback, and then if I liked their digs, we'd publish them in the journal that was part of Slushstories.com entitled Our Stories, because who really wants go around and say, "Yes, GAWD YES, SLUSHSTORIES took my piece on dyslexic mania in the 70's!!" Got me? Sounds a bit confusing doesn't it? Yeah, it sucked. Anytime you need a frickin' road map to get your idea across, you're a lost soul. Lost dog. Lost sailor. Whatever. So we had that site up for about 3 months and I just sat waiting around for someone to be like, "Oooooh this rulez! I'm going to give someone 20 bucks so they can tell me I suck!!?!?!" and low and behold we got zilched. Nada. Not one submission. I had assembled a skeleton crew of reviewers. M. M. De Voe came on early; she did her MFA at Columbia, and I was like, "YES! we got a New Yorker!" She just rocks, by the way; everything that she gets a hold of is really torn to shreds, and she builds it back up. Then I got this guy, JK Mason who is now the Assistant Editor, and he also stepped in during those early days; he'd won a bunch of prizes and is damn sharp. My good friend Josh Campbell who reviews all of my work and is a kick ass reader, and the team was rounded out with Kendra Tuthil, who I had met at Mason. I was really embarrassed because I couldn't pay them anything for doing nothing. So I decided that we had to go free. And in a sense I had to not pay them for their work and asked for that commitment to do it for free. Surprisingly they all stayed on staff. I was really shocked. That was huge. They're the best, most loyal, and caring staff I've ever worked with. They really stuck with it, and they believed in the concept and seeing it through.
So we revamped everything. First to go was the Slushstories.com idea, which didn't make any sense anyway, as no one got the joke that I was trying to get across...something like a "your stories aren't slush stories with us," which really sounds too complicated. Then I pumped out a lot of hours playing with design and a new domain name later, we went back up as OurStories (hyperlink). Simple is good. Later we picked up Justin, Ehren and Heidi, who are all great readers as well. So what we do during the open submission periods is give people some general feedback, about a paragraph or so, at the least. During the contests we do these bang-up, professional, kick-ass reviews of stories. HQ shit. 100% pure grade. We work hard for their money and spend a lot of energy giving something back. To me, that's the central part of the journal and the part that will never go away. We started really taking off, well, almost immediately. As soon as people saw that there was a crew of foolios that would actually say something about their work without flat rejecting them, it just caught on like wild fire. I know, I know, I'm getting to the experience itself of reading and reviewing. It's really really rewarding. I love reading, always have, and I get really into dissecting the flaws in stories, making them stronger and attempting to connect to the writers around the world. That's how I see it, and that’s how I see my own writing: an attempt to connect to an audience and have them feel something, be moved by something.
Yeah, I wondered about the SlushStories.com "company" mentioned in the preface of the first issue; I couldn't access that site anywhere, and now that makes sense that you've dropped that and stuck with this new version.
So when you say this has "caught on," about how many submissions do you get per reading period?
Been up for a year, and we're growing exponentially. I think that first quarter we got over 100 submissions, and every month we get another 100 submissions more than that coming into our database, so last open period was about 400. The contest, I'm not going to get into that, but we turned a profit, all my readers got paid for their work, which was a great feeling, I reinvested in the website – getting a fancy new database and submission manager, ala One Story – and we were proud to give Joni the $300 bones. Have you read her story? It's really kick ass.
I read Joni Koehler's story and Colin Thornhill's story yesterday and today and enjoyed them both. I haven't gotten to the others yet in the issue, sorry. As for the growing number of submissions, that seems to show how much interest you've received since the new system went into place. What kinds of things have you been doing to promote the journal recently?
To promote the journal we've sent flyers around the country to English departments, paid for some links on NewPages.com, and we send regular emails to a mailing list. Not much. I think it's mostly just word of mouth. We know that the reviews we do have the effect of reaching dozens of others. So it's a bit of "Did you hear about these guys who reject but tell you why?" We get lots of fan mail after we send out rejections, tons of people that want to just let us know their reaction. I'm always worried when I check my email box that someone is going to be like "Hey that review sucked!!” But I haven't gotten one yet, just these emails saying, "Thank you, you have no idea how much that helps me." It really moves me every time to read them. Makes it all worth it. To our writers, and I call them all "our writers" because in a sense they are part of a community, it's akin to therapy. I know we're building because of that. I mean I would go for that, damn, with my own writing I'd like to get some feedback. Maybe I should send my stuff into the journal and give it to one of my staff members, can I do that? I think I'd need to use a fake name, whatcha think? I will hence forth be known as "Garrison Caliente," the Prairie Home Community Cuban. Yeah, that works. Don't laugh, the New Yorker could use a cross between Garrison Keillor and Junot Diaz gracing their pages, might as well be me.
I won't laugh - rumors have it that an Iowa grad recently sold a vampire trilogy to Ballantine for $3.75 million under the pseudonym Jordan Ainsley - so I say go with it.
You mentioned your own writing somewhere in that last response. I was about to ask, really, because it sounds like this journal project is quite big.
How has your own writing been going? You have anything right now, published, forthcoming, or in-progress that you'd like to talk about?
You better laugh Ryan – really – it's the only thing that's going to keep you sane when you graduate and you look at what they pay adjuncts.
Oh hey, my writing I thought we'd get to that. I’m always juggling a few dozen projects at the same time. I started two novels when I was at Mason, in addition to completing a short story collection. I haven't done anything with the stories since turning them in last year. I haven't bothered starting any new stories either since getting the novel bug. That was Bausch's advice, he told me to just get one novel done and then worry about moving back into the short story form when a novel was in the hands of agents. The first novel I started is about a young black boy, by the name of Leland Carter, growing up in Baltimore and the birth of rap music circa late 80's. The kid dies at the hands of two Hopkins students who are white and are, well, for lack of a better term, "wiggers." It's entitled The Leland Carter Incident. I got pretty far on that novel and then set it aside because I fell in love with another project. I recently finished my first novel this summer, and – let me tell you – when you do get done, there is no better feeling in the whole world. It's entitled The Song of the Midnight Rider. It's about a guy who is blackmailed into working for some Hungarian gangsters, transporting drugs up and down the east coast. It was a fun novel to write: fast cars, drugs, rock and roll music and mean Hungarians. That's all done and I've been revising to get it to agents by the end of this month.
The business side of all this becomes frighteningly evident as you decide to try to make a living off of this. I started out joking about adjuncting, and well, yeah that's not the route I'm currently on, and I admire anyone who cuts their teeth at it. Yet, we didn't do MFAs to be adjuncts; we got the degree to fucking write, period. You, well we, really have to be schooled in how to turn our labor into food. We go/went to one of the best MFA programs in the country, seriously, George Mason is one of the top MFA programs in the country. Anyone who tells you different has got to get over not getting into NYU. I read work from writers all around the country, from every major MFA program out there, and there is zero difference between the writing at Mason and the writing at, say, Columbia or Washington, or even Iowa. The big differences are the connections and the ability for you to have agents able and willing to take a look at your stuff. Why not invite agents to Fall for the Book? Have an MFA thesis showcase in the spring? I've been lucky that I have been given some good advice and counsel from friends who have said, "Get the novel done, get your pitch letter ready and we'll send it out to people I know." I mean, I don't remember talking to anyone at Mason about what a pitch letter was, yet alone how to write one...God forbid actually talking about what agent to send it to. Sorry. Tangent. Next?
No, that is a good tangent. I think recently we've had an increased interest among the students to work towards getting publishing help, and Mary Kay Zuravleff, a visiting writer last year, asked her agent to come speak to a class. I've also heard that faculty have specifically worked with students one-on-one to help them best consider how to submit a certain story. So there's definitely an improved focus on that, even though I'd consider Mason to be more "craft-oriented."
So what "route" are you on right now? Obviously not the adjunct one - last I'd heard you were in New York City? What are you doing work-wise?
"Craft-oriented"? You know I want to stick here for a second. That doesn't make any sense. It's a crock of shit. A load. Whatever. You think painters never learn what a gallery is? Or how to approach curators? You think actors don't need to learn how to get into productions? How to nail casting calls? I've heard that "craft-oriented" line before and I think you seriously set back students a good 3-5 years with that sort of hands-off approach towards the business side of all this. I remember we had a class and someone asked bluntly to a professor, "So how do I get an agent?" we were all 3rd years, we were all working on novels and we were pretty bad ass, this professor just said, "oh we're not at that stage yet, let's talk about the craft." Really, that's insulting. I mean, you've worked for Phoebe, you've seen what comes in there, I've seen the work that comes in, and publishers get tons of work that isn't even close in quality as the worst of the first year Mason's students. If a Masters-level program doesn't put in hours to getting our material to the next step, to turning it into food, then the program itself is seriously flawed. So, that's great that Mary Kay brought in an agent for show and tell, but it's not enough. You need an entire course on this shit, negotiations, letters, agents, etc. "Oh Alexis, you're sooo serious!" Yeah, I hear you saying that, but think about what you're saying if you don't think that? It means you're content with just continuing to write and relying on trial and error until you either get lucky or burn out and lose hope.
Back to the question. What am I doing now? Well, since I graduated I had an international translation grant to live in a castle in Romania and work with Romanian literature; that was fun with the exception that the castle didn't have hot water and there were tons of random dogs roaming around in packs and the castle was 30 minutes from the closest cafe where I could get some decent coffee. Hey, it was a Romanian castle, after all. Then I was living in NYC and working for a marketing firm, writing boring technical stuff. The marketing gig paid really well, I worked from home and they quickly found that they didn't have enough to keep me busy. So, for the summer I made lots of money and sat at home every day, wrote my novel and just pretended that I had a really, really good fellowship. Alas, all good things end and the company had some cut backs and their MfAer was on the chopping block. Right now, I'm working on the journal a lot, working on The Song of the Midnight Rider and job searching in upstate NY. I live in Ithaca, where I grew up. For money? Well, their severance package was pretty good and I’ll leave it at that. I would like to teach, really I would, I mean what we do with the journal is essentially teaching — who doesn’t want one of those college gigs teaching creative writing? We're also going to start offering Our Stories regional workshops that our staff will conduct, and an annual writers’ workshop aimed for the summer of 2008. Big plans, keep growing, changing and shaking things up.
That would be nice to have a course that focuses on the business side of things. I wonder how many other programs do something like that already; I'll have to check around. I think that's about all I wanted to cover for now; have you got any last minute thing? It sounds like you're a busy man these days, so thank you again for giving us a chance to hear what's going on with you. Good luck with Our Stories, the novel, and the job search up in Ithaca.
Nothing further on my end, boss. Thanks for the opportunity and write well.