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The Sewanee Review: Summer Interview with Adam Ross

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Photo by Jack Barnwell

I love to dip in and out of The New Yorker, Garden & Gun, other glossies. I do interplanetary research on another species – men – by reading my husband’s Esquire. I hadn’t picked up a literary magazine in years until a Nashville friend – Adam Ross – took over as editor of The Sewanee Review in 2016. Now I’ve added it to the stack, with pleasure! It’s a great place to browse short fiction, essays, and poetry, featuring new and established voices – Adam’s ambitious for this Grande Dame of letters to become even more relevant, more fresh, and more widely read. He’s gotten great ink in The New York Times and other publications, including The Paris Review and Chapter 16. The second issue arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago, and Adam is kind enough to stop in at Bacon today for a conversation.

Hi Adam! The second issue is beautiful! I’ve got a few questions for you about it, but first, some general questions about your job as editor.

In your interview with Brooks Egerton at Chapter16 a few months back, you describe the pleasure of working with writers who submit their work. What has been the most surprising aspect of the job to you so far?

That I experience the same thrill seeing debut writers in print as I do my own work. There’s an aspect of midwifery to editing this material that makes you feel a degree of pride and ownership of it. I heard from Jen Logan Meyer yesterday, whose story we just published. She wrote to tell me that a professor she knows decided to teach it. And it made my day. Because for a writer being published for the first time is the most concrete indication that they can do this – write something worth reading. It means they’re on their way.

The Sewanee Review has a storied past. What would you like people to be saying about it in 5 years? In 15?

That it became relevant to an even broader audience and that it was where they first read, say, Sidik Fofana. That readers associate us with such literary discoveries and consequently trust us to bring them the news about what’s out there. And that the Review is still great, even after 140 years.

What is the community of literary journals like? Do the editors know each other and help each other out or advise new kids on the block? Who do you admire in the field?

I admire Chad Harbach, Lorin Stein, David Yezzi, and David Lynn of n +1, The Paris Review, Johns Hopkins Review, and The Kenyon Review respectively. There are so many others, too many to list here; however, the Davids and Lorin have given me specific advice about various matters and I’ve really appreciated their generosity.

And the community, I’ve found, is just generally very collegial. We have a particular place in the literary ecosystem. We are a place of nourishment, a proving ground, for up and coming writers. We give other writers a place to publish pieces they might not be able to elsewhere, even Pulitzer winners. We have a remarkable essay by Richard Russo coming out in the Summer issue. It’s over 24,000 words and it’s remarkable. No glossy magazine could publish something of that length.

The jobs we do change us (maybe). True or false? Some of my friends’ daughters had you as a teacher, years ago, at Harpeth Hall. How did that job change you? It’s early yet – but how is your work at The Sewanee Review affecting you?

Adam Ross

I taught 7th and 8th graders at Harpeth Hall for four years and was then the writer in residence for one year. How did that job change me? Too many ways to list here but here’s a favorite: Before my daughter, Margot, was born, my 7th graders threw me a surprise baby shower. They gave me a box in which all of them wrote me a note with advice about how to be a great Dad. Wallace Morgan said this: Sometimes when I talk with you, I don’t need you to say anything. I just need you to listen.

It makes me want to cry, thinking about that. This kid was 12. Guess what? Just spoke to her on the phone yesterday. She’s a publicist, working in New York City, and she called me for some advice. She’s as perceptive now as she was then.

As for my work at The Sewanee Review, well, I’ll pass this along as important and oft-forgotten advice to writers: Get that first draft done. It’s been amazing to witness writers as great Lauren Groff, Hannah Pittard, Stephanie Danler, and Sidik Fofana move from their initial draft to something solid, refined, and finished. All of them do such a good job of getting words down on paper first, or first words down, unselfconsciously, in the full faith that they’ll have a better idea of what they’re doing after they get to the end of something. It’s been encouraging to me as I’ve continued to work on my own novel. It’s helped me trust that I’ll figure things out down the road.

I know you spend a fair amount of time in the car between Nashville and Sewanee. Music, audiobooks or cell phone?

Music (I just switched to Apple music, ten dollars a month, all you can consume), Audible (I’m currently listening to Toni Morrison read Beloved, though I highly recommend Rosamund Pike reading Pride and Prejudice), and cell phone (it’s my favorite time to chat with friends).

Okay, let’s turn to the second issue of the Review.

The most suspenseful and surprising piece in this issue, to me, is “Cow Man,” by Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter), a short story with both paranormal and horror elements while remaining beautifully literary. Do you know Franklin? Did he write this piece specifically for the Review?

Okay, so correction. That’s the first chapter of his new novel. And I’m glad you liked it, because I think it’s amazing. There’s a great story of how it came to my attention. I was a winner of the Berlin Prize and have been a reader for it for the past several years. Two years ago, Franklin applied. I happened to luck out and get him in my pile of submissions. The excerpt, “Cow Man,” knocked me out. It lit up all my pleasure centers, as Dwight Garner likes to say: it had narrative propulsion and beautiful writing. He was my finalist in my group, along with Adam Johnson. Molly Antopol too (I got a good packet). They all won the prize. (Yay!)

Tom Franklin

Flash forward a year, Tom’s off to Berlin, I’m the new editor of the Review and I’m like, “Hey, Tom, any chance I could publish that first chapter.” And Tom being the great guy he is was like, “Hell yes.” Enjoy the coming attraction.

I was also quite taken by the three short stories by Monica Lavin, one of Mexico’s most prolific and respected modern writers, whom I’d never heard of before reading this issue of The Sewanee Review. I think one of the best things a literary journal can do is pique the reader’s curiosity about an author. It seems to me you’re aiming to expose readers to authors they haven’t heard of, as well as featuring names they’ll recognize… am I right about that? 

Yes, and I’m so glad you liked Lavin’s stories. They floored me. So disturbing. So vivid. Such powerful statements about what it means to be a woman in Mexico. The Monica Lavin stories came to us via Sewanee School of Letters grad Dorothy Potter Snyder, a translator who approached me about this discovery she’d made. She gives her students money to buy books when they’re traveling in Mexico and one of them returned with Lavin. So yes, I’m just paying Dorothy’s gift forward to American readers. It is the first time the Review has published translated work. And yes, I’m always trying to mix it up between new writers and established ones. So when we published Stephanie Danler’s essay this winter, or Lauren Groff’s, we’re trying to give readers a different look at a writer plying a different genre. Same goes for Richard Russo, or my new managing editor, Alec Hill, who co-authored the Jill McCorkle interview this spring and will be publishing his first nonfiction piece, “The Waterman,” about his summer working at an oyster farm, this summer.

Alice McDermott, unlike Monica Lavin, is known to many American readers (National Book Award for Charming Billy). McDermott’s piece speaks most directly to novelists about craft, specifically about rereading work while writing it. What did you find most interesting about that piece?

Alice McDermott

Alice’s piece blew my mind. God, she is such a pro. She gave the most remarkable reading from her new novel at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this summer. Keep a look out for her new novel. What I found most interesting about her craft lecture, which is called “Only Connect,” is that part of the challenge of the novelist is to discover the internal connections in their novels as if they didn’t write it. This is a beautiful idea. It implies, at least to me, that a novel in even its most nascent stages already contains the DNA of its fully realized state.

Another nonfiction piece that really caught my attention is “Scenes from a Marriage,” by Hannah Pittard. Her novel Listen to Me tells the story of a strained marriage, and Pittard and her husband divorced not long after its publication. Pittard’s essay for the Review is brutally honest, not least on the subject of how (some) novelists use dialogue and scenes directly from their own lives and the lives of those around them. I can’t think of anywhere else I would have read a meditation like this… maybe The New Yorker? Do you see some overlap between pieces in The New Yorker and the Review?

I don’t see overlap but I’ll take the compliment. I’m a huge fan of Hannah’s, ever since her first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way. I contacted her after listening to her new novel, Listen to Me, on Audible, dying to work with her. She is a big Mr. Peanut fan and so we got to talking about the challenges of writing about marriage and then she drops this bomb: On the day my novel published, I discovered my husband was cheating on me with my best friend. Well, her novel anticipates this very thing happening. The same tensions are there. So we began to delve into the very grey area between autobiography and fiction. I think the results are riveting.

Another similarity between The New Yorker and the Review is the sprinkling of poetry throughout each. You open the most recent issue of the Review with Five Love Poems by Kaveh Akbar. Akbar’s first poem begins –

“I meant to invite you/to my confession/and maybe I did/it might have gotten lost in the mail/or in the back/of my mouth…”.

The idea of a confession getting lost in the back of your mouth – that is just arresting. How did you discover Akbar’s work, or did he discover you?

Oh, Kaveh is very much out there, publishing everywhere. I’d read him in all sorts of places. We were just lucky he was willing to submit work to us. I will add that discovering these poets is easier for everyone than they might think. In the Fall issue, our 500th, we’ll be publishing new work by Donika Kelly. How did I discover her? The Vanderbilt Creative Writing Series.

The editors of TSR have selected Mary Ruefle as the thirty-first recipient of the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry. Other recipients include luminaries like Wendell Berry and Louise Gluck. You include two of Ruefle’s poems and a “Piece of Prose” from her in this issue. How did the editors choose Ruefle, and what do you find most special or interesting about her work?

Mary Ruefle, Photo credit: Michelle Eikenbary

These are great questions. We made the decision about the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern Poetry as a staff. I had certain poets in mind, I reached out to quite a few poets that I knew as to who they considered deserving of such an honor, we came up with a longlist, the staff and I winnowed that to a shortlist, and then made a final decision. What do I love about Ruefle? Before I answer that, everyone should read her remarkable book of poetry lectures, “Madness, Rack, and Honey.” This is a first-rate literary intelligence at work and her essay “On Sentimentality” is seminal. Maybe more than anything what I love most about her are her perfect lateral moves, associatively, in a poem. Consider this brilliant short poem:

The Hand

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority,

but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk

and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie

flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch,

a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

 

This is a poem about the beauty and generative power of self-knowledge, how withholding can be so affirming and clearly indicate one’s identity. It’s that move she makes to the robin that’s classic Ruefle to me. The robin is what it is; here, a child has become aware of what she is, and there is no fall to consciousness (the apple) but rather an awareness of her own “essential beauty.”

Speaking of literary awards – I loved Merritt Moseley’s piece “On the Man Booker Prize.” How interesting that he’s been covering the Man Booker for the Review since 1993! “What an exhilirating, unsettling, darkly hilarious book this is,” he writes about The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, the 2016 winner. “Sometimes the Booker judges go really wrong; sometimes they choose a winner that one must concede isn’t at all bad; and sometimes – as with Possession, Wolf Hall, and now The Sellout – they get it exactly right.” I didn’t love The Sellout – I put it down without finishing it – but his piece makes me think I should pick it up again. Have you read it? (And – what books are on your nightstand table right now?)

Thanks for this embarrassing question. Haven’t read The Sellout yet. We will chat when I do. Here’s what’s on my nightstand: Swing Time by Zadie Smith; The Joke by Milan Kundera; Trajectory by Richard Russo; Texas Blood by Roger Hodge (that’s a galley); Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett; A Friend of My Youth by Alice Munro. That’s my Nashville nightstand, btw. Down at Sewanee, I have another nightstand.

Adam, I can’t even begin to highlight everything that’s going on in this second issue of the Review. Readers will have to pick it up for themselves! Subscriptions are available at www.thesewaneereview.com. Hard copies are also available at Parnassus.

Thank you for spending some time at Bacon today!

 

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Adam in front of the Watson House, new home for The Sewanee Review

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Copyright reserved for hummingbird photo: Jack Barnwell. 

Photo of Tom Franklin from http://www.harpercollinsspeakersbureau.com/speaker/tom-franklin/

Photo of Alice McDermott from http://writingseminars.jhu.edu/directory/alice-mcdermott/

Photo credit at Watson House: http://www.sewanee.edu/features/story/sewanee-review.html

12 Comments

  1. Jennifer — and Adam — I really enjoyed this interview. Loved the peek into life as an editor of a literary journal and the breezy descriptions of a dozen or more authors, many of whom I’ve never heard of. A reminder of how much great writing is out there — if only I could find enough time to read!

  2. What a special treat!

  3. My daughter was lucky enough to have Adam as a teacher at Harpeth Hall. How lucky we all are to have him at the helm at “The Sewanee Review”!

  4. Almost as interesting as reading Adam’s answers is reading your questions. The image of your discovering TSR, digging into it, piece by piece, and uncovering its gems, one by one, was an entertainment in itself. This interview could have been daunting, but you seem to have had fun with it, making it, in turn, fun for your readers. Look out, TSR. Chances are good you’ll experience a Bacon Bump because of it.

  5. Great interview Jennifer and Adam! Thanks!

  6. Thanks, Jennifer, for sharing this interview, and for commending to readers The Sewanee Review. What a rich tradition! This was fun reading for all your Bacon fans.

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