n January, we had the pleasure of interviewing Minnie Marie Hayes, Editor-In-Chief and Publisher of StoryQuarterly, a literary publication established in 1975 devoted to the short story. The intention of our interview was to get some behind-the-scenes glimpses of how a major fiction journal works and thinks. We are hoping what she has shared will inspire all of us, from those who simply read, to those actively writing and/or submitting, to those in editing or publishing roles.
We would like to thank Marie for the time she spent, and the very useful insight she has given us. The StoryQuarterly web site is at www.storyquarterly.com.
The Summerset Review: How did you find yourself in the field of literary editing and publishing? Is it a passion? What do you love about it?
M.M.M. Hayes: I wound up here by default, no question about it. Iím a writer first and know lots of editors and writers around the country, so when a friend, a former coeditor of StoryQuarterly, got stuck and needed help ó an issue due in the mail in six weeks and she couldnít do production or the business end of a non-profit ó I backed into those jobs to help her ó help her fast was the idea, then back to my own stories and a novel (which still hasnít happened).
But yes, of course itís a passion; no one would work this hard otherwise. And finding a story thatís wonderful, getting to know its author, seeing StoryQuarterly open doors for him or her, now thatís reward. We had over thirty agents call about writers when the last issue came out. The issue before that at least one two-book contract resulted from such a call and several deals are pending a novel being finished. Doing that for an author feels good. It really does.
Have you worked with many other literary publications in the past? For example, weíve seen your name listed under Editorial Staff in issues of Other Voices in the 1990s. What would be a few of the unique or important things youíve experienced in working on these various publications?
I worked for Other Voices for a few years and have warm relations with those editors. Weíll share a table this spring at the Printerís Row Book Fair in Chicago. I also co-edited an anniversary issue of StoryQuarterly years ago. All that was helpful, but I had worked as editor of a group of trade publications ó funeral parlor magazines, music store and audiovisual magazines, laughable diversity ó for a branch of Donnelley Press in Chicago. I was responsible for editing and production, on tight deadlines, and that was boot camp. After that, I could put War and Peace in a caption; just tell me how many inches I had. That job taught a tremendous writing discipline. By the time I started publishing StoryQuarterly, I could do the production blind and just needed updating on software.
Choosing fiction is another matter. Thatís such an individual process. Absolutely everything Iíve ever experienced in my life contributes to that. But isnít that true of all readers, if they ask themselves how they decide what they like?
Weíve noticed the issues of StoryQuarterly in the last few years have been bigger than in previous years. (And, of course, we appreciate it.) Can you talk about what has made this possible?
That really happened for the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Issue, a logical reason to go bigger. After that issue, Anne retired and I loved the idea of staying big. I mean, in spite of the prehensile name Quarterly in our title, the magazine has been an annual since about three years after its founding, in 1975. So if we were doing one book, it seemed that an anthology should offer the same amount of fiction other magazines produced in a year. By then too, I liked the idea of a book that became a companion, that you put on the nightstand and read before you fell asleep, that you threw in a suitcase or purse when you went on a trip ó and from reports, this was happening. Finally, my grown sons liked it bigger, and that cinched it.
What are some of the things initial staff readers of StoryQuarterly look for in deciding what pieces to circulate for further review? Weíve all read about the most common reasons literary publications reject stories; looking at the bright side, what are a few elements that help pieces succeed in getting past the slush pile?
You know, thatís not an easy thing to answer. I look first for whatís at stake, or what the story is about, what the character wants. Surprisingly, thatís not often apparent. Or perhaps itís apparent but trivial ó compared, that is, to so much else we see in daily news. Brilliant writing canít fix that.
Another way I think of openings is, the best fiction gives off a tension, right from the start ó perhaps only an attitude, or tone to some description ó to suggest opposing forces at work, betraying a richness beneath the surface that may stimulate ideas. Author control in these matters is also immediately evident. My best example of this is Carverís first line in ďCathedralĒ: ďThis blind man, a friend of my wifeís, was coming to visit.Ē The first word sets you on edge. Now thatís control.
How do you yourself contribute to the decision-making process on story submissions? What would be some of the things you particularly like to see in a story?
StoryQuarterly has, in my humble opinion, the best-qualified staff of fiction editors in the business, most of them teachers in real life. Our use of web-based submissions make location irrelevant, so we live all over the country and talk online. Each editor grades a story and makes a comment and stories that attain a certain average go forward for general review. In the final tier, everyone votes on each story. It always surprises me how often stories find polar opposites on our staff; one dynamite editor sees a richness, a kaleidoscope of shapes in a story, while another equally sharp editor sees, say, lack of focus. Usually, though, enthusiasm forms early and stories we accept have a strong following here.
Personally, I look for something that makes me think about something in a new way, fiction with ideas. Then too, I search out certain types of story, contemporary Western stories, for instance, that I donít see enough of yet and the stereotypes are so awful. And I donít see enough African, or South American fiction, so Iíll go looking for that.
You write about Anne Brashler in SQ 37 as frequently Ďgoing to bat for stories that tugged at her heart strings.í Can you share with us one or two little episodes of drama in the debate process?
I canít speak for Anne, of course, but I think I can present her side of that deconstruction. ĎTugging at her heartstringsí suggests one way of reacting to story, which is to look for heart probably, certainly for passion. I agree that story should have heart and passion, but I think Iím hypersensitive by now to sentimental fiction, or fiction that preaches to the choir about some issue thatís already conventional wisdom! Still seems to me, if a writerís not turning up new ground, or seeing conventional wisdom as having no clothes, why just repeat whatís already been done? My take is personal, of course, but repetition rarely works for me.Tell us a little about the last story you read that really impressed you. What was so incredible about it? (You donít need to state the name or author of the story.)
I loved a story I picked up last night, a magic-realist, contemporary story set on an Indian reservation, about on old Indian who had lost his arm to diabetes. No, he insists, his arm isnít gone, itís just gone wandering. He can feel it. Then, throughout the story, Death is coming for him; Death is just catching the train over in Tonapah, as he speaks. Itís a story thatís funny, sweet, deep, and written by an author who loved all his characters so I loved them too.
Many authors have written about The New Yorker, saying their fifteenth or twentieth fiction submission was finally accepted, and that some rejections received before that were in the form of hand-written words of encouragement. Can you talk a little about how much the story should speak for itself and carry the author on its own merit, as opposed to the relationship between author and editor, and the authorís previous writing credits?
Of course a story should stand on its own, and some editors refuse to read cover letters and credits before they read a story, so as not to be influenced. I like that, think itís a good tack to take. I heard Seamus Heaney say once, a poem should make itís own way, without the poetís name to help it; then he admitted that he hadnít been able to be that much of a purist. He signed his poems.
And it is hard to be so pure, not to be influenced. Because itís not only the cover letters that influence you. There are people you get to know personally, as well as like their work, and you tend to read so much more into what theyíre writing because youíve read a lot of their earlier work. Jeff Renard Allen is an example of this for me. I met him years ago in graduate school ó Jeff a big, raw-boned kid, maybe just 21, straight off the streets of Chicago, pretty quiet in class. But the STORIES! My God. We all just sat there with our mouths open. So years, a Ph.D. and a few books later (he won a Whiting Award this year), Jeff still writes about these larger than life characters Iíve loved for years. How objective can I be? Still, I wonít publish a magazine of just my friends, so I often have to reject people I love. And I hate that. I really do.How has the Internet, the StoryQuarterly web site, and the acceptance of submissions via email affected StoryQuarterly? Has it led to an increase in volume of submissions? Have you found that emailed submissions are generally of the same quality as those received via regular mail?
The impact of the internet on StoryQuarterly has been huge. Initially, we backed into it clueless, thinking that taking stories over the Internet would reduce the paper clutter and record keeping. And then we were deluged! It wasnít funny. Our hard mail submissions stayed the same or increased, and the Internet submissions absolutely exploded ó literally exploded, as Hotmail deleted whole full inboxes of submissions, Hotmailís style of encouraging customers to buy more storage. Nice.
So that first year was a mess and weíre just now cleaning up detritus from that. Over the summer, our fabulous web-designer Kit Irwin built a submission site for us and itís working flawlessly. Itís fabulous. Everything stays in one place, paperless (unless an editor wants to print out something to study it further) and all of us can log in and read the story in one place, without shuttling it around for people to see. Itís all on one database, everything organized, numbered and filed, if you will, in oneís computer so there is no loss of manuscripts, or piles of paper taking over rooms. Writers can log in and check story progress for themselves, no correspondence necessary. The site eliminates hours and hours of time logging in manuscripts, transporting and mailing them around to various editors, keeping track of where they are, logging in the response and when it was mailed out. Not creative time, and all of it in addition to reading the stories. Much better to do only the reading and let the writers handle the logistics.
So the system works, neatly, efficiently, and weíre turning around material in about six weeks as of the middle of January. Thatíll be two months by the end of our reading period, March 31, as the heaviest period seems to be January through March. But thatís great. Weíre pleased with both six weeks and two months.
Iíve heard people say that stories they get by email arenít as good, but weíre not finding that. Not many people donít have email, so weíre getting the same stories, I think, wonderful things. We get a lot of submissions, thousands of them, and theyíre not all good by any means, but thereís plenty of rich, deep fiction to choose from. Times have never been better out there. I think most lit journals will accept submissions this way when they see how much easier it is.
Do you think there are a significant number of online literary journals that are close to, or of the same caliber as, major literary print journals?
I think thereís most definitely fiction out there thatís as good or better than fiction we see in the major commercial literary magazines. This year, for instance, Harperís is reprinting a gorgeous story of Robert Olen Butlerís thatís in our current issue, StoryQuarterly38, a reminder that weíre all drinking from the same trough. Many of the major literary journals publish so much more fiction than the commercials, and are free to choose subjects that may antagonize some advertisers. On the other hand, commercial magazines do so many things well at the same time ó groundbreaking photography, powerful in-depth essays on politics, science, religion, and so many subjects ó that the question of caliber becomes moot. They do their job and we do ours.
Online publications overlap, I think, just as journals overlap commercial literaries. On our website, we publish stories that have appeared in earlier StoryQuarterlies. Online zines take published and unpublished stories. So it all comes together, and personally I think it all makes the canon healthier ó that competition of not only ideas but venues. Being too narrow-minded about standards of excellence in publishing puts one at risk of being left behind. Face it, getting the material out there is what matters, and then let the story do its own work.
What are a few of your personal favorite literary fiction journals (whether they be print or web-based)? Why exactly is each one a favorite?
Thatís hard. So many publications truly rich in art and ideas come to mind. One subscription Iíve kept in an unbroken number of years since college is The Atlantic, and I continue to respect the quality of not only their fiction and poetry but the fine in-depth essays on national and international subjects as well.
Then too, I do love The New Yorker. Itís fiction is noteworthy, but I also love New York, lived there for about ten years, and I still roll around in the reviews of theater, art, music, dance and books, as well as top notch essays. And only Chicago politics beats New York politics for hi-jinks.
I have to mention Granta too, a real favorite for its international fiction, essays and photography. Granta plays itself out on the largest possible stage, and thatís a passion I can share with them, being an internationalist myself and somewhat impatient with much narcissistic 20th Century fiction.
The standard for me is fiction that excites me, that makes me think in a new way about something. So thereís Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, Paris Review, Georgia Review, Zyzzyva (for the exploding field of wonderful Western writers), Ploughshares, Other Voices and so many more. Some of the special theme issues that Reg Gibbons did in TriQuarterly are still as good as it gets, in my opinion. All of these magazines have personal biases, quite naturally, but they find the new giants bubbling up from our communal mud. They have an eye for natural talent and you can see brilliant work emerging. Thatís exciting.
Do you have a feeling as to what the most common objectives are when authors submit work to publications that pay little or nothing? Is it simply to get published in a market they like? Are they trying to build a foundation that might eventually lead to the publishing of a novel? Alternatively, a collection? Perhaps the objective is to win a significant award for the single story?
All of the above. We get unpublished authors ó and are grateful to them; we want to find first-time authors. I think most literary journals do. We look for them. And we get published authors too, that want the credit before a collection or novel comes out, perhaps. Agents send us things for this reason too. We get subject matter that might be hard to place and maybe weíll be interested and maybe we wonít. And then, because I tend to add a note as to why a rejection is being made (itís just as easy to comment after having read the story) some writers send for a ďtakeĒ on their draft. I feel this at times, but it seems fair enough. Where else can they go? Workshops tend to get clubby, and there comes a point you have to throw the thing in and see if it can swim.
StoryQuarterly actively submits candidate stories for consideration at places that run annual awards and acknowledgements, such as the O. Henry Award and Pushcart Prize anthologies. How do you determine which stories get nominated?
Fortunately, we have to make our own choices for only one anthology, the Pushcart Prizes. Other anthologies read everything and choose themselves. I like that best, as I hate to pick between stories Iíve loved and selected ó itís like choosing between your children. So happily, only the one anthology asks us to determine. Of course there are special anthologies too, like New Stories from the South. Only some stories fit their parameters, so we send southern stories or stories by southern authors to them.
Can you speak about any future goals StoryQuarterly might have?
More readers, bigger circulation. Weíre already at close to 5,000, excellent circulation for a lit journal, but weíd like to reach audiences we still miss.
The fundamental goal never changes, to find the best fiction we can. Thatís a proactive thing in our case, and we go out looking for good fiction at readings and workshops, donít just wait for it to come to us.
Finally, we want to have a national reading series and weíre working on that.
We know that two of the Ms stand for Minnie Marie. Are you willing to indulge us on the third?
I answer to a lot of names, but the first two Ms are for Minnie Marie, used by my childhood family as a double name because my mother and grandmother had the same double name and my mother was using Marie. The third M is simply my maiden name, Mitchell, which I first used when I started to publish. My husband is pretty laid-back about things, but one day my two little sons looked up at me and said, ďWhatís wrong with Hayes?Ē
Actually, Iím a piker with only 3 Ms in my name. My mother, who has the same name, married a Morgensen after my father died. After Morgensen died, she received a proposal from another gentleman who asked if she wanted to add a fifth M to her name. As it happened, she didnít.
Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003