A Writer’s Insight: The Editorial Assistant Exit/Intro Interview

In a twist on the typical A Writer’s Insight feature, The Southern Review’s last editorial assistant, Kathleen Boland, interviews incoming assistant Garrett Hazelwood. Read about what it means to be an editorial assistant, Garrett’s reading preferences, Kathleen’s move to Oregon, the literary journals they mutually admire, and more. 

Kathleen Boland: What are you most excited about in terms of working for The Southern Review?

Garrett Hazelwood: There is so much to be excited about! I’ve been impressed by the quality of the submissions, humbled to see just how much care Emily and Jessica put into every word we publish, and proud to be part of a journal that is engaging on this level with such a wide national and international readership. But I think I have to say I’m most excited to be in communication with so many of the unbelievably talented authors we publish and to be involved with their work as it moves along the path to publication. As someone who is taking his first steps into the world of publishing, I feel incredibly lucky to be able to learn from the work of such brilliant writers and from the mentorship of two astoundingly generous, meticulous, and skillful editors.

KB: You’ve traveled all over the world, most recently working on a fishing boat in Alaska. How do you think these experiences impact you as a reader and as an editor?

GH: One of the reasons I’ve found travel so valuable and rewarding is that it often forces me into situations where my biases get challenged, where I’m confronted with the unfamiliar in ways that require me to break out of my typical habits of thought. So my hope is that traveling has made me more open to new experiences, slower to make judgments against that which I perceive as strange, and more willing to be uncomfortable­—because it seems I always learn the most when I feel the most out of my depth. Of course, much of the best writing requires something similar from its readers: a willingness to be uncomfortable sometimes, an openness to new ways of seeing, and a kind of thirst for the unfamiliar. I think it’s inevitable that we become biased toward narratives that are similar to the ones we’ve enjoyed already, but it’s also incredibly important for us as literary gatekeepers to seek out and celebrate writing that manages to break new ground.

KB: When reading the slush, what’s one of the things you look for? At what point do you know you have to recommend the piece to the coeditors?

GH: In these past few months, I’ve spent a lot of time reading back issues and getting a feel for the aesthetic Emily and Jessica have cultivated in the journal. So as I’m reading, I’m first and foremost looking for stories that resonate with the sensibility and artistic values that drive The Southern Review, and I’m daily comparing notes with Emily to better understand the kinds of writing we want to champion. Fortunately, I’m finding that the aesthetics here are very much in rhythm with my own, particularly insofar as I’m drawn to character-driven stories with people acting in morally ambiguous ways. The work that lingers with me the longest often involves characters experiencing conflicting motivations and emotions or manages to juxtapose sadness and humor in a way that rings true to life.

I’m also a sucker for a strong ending. Even when the writing has some flaws, if the last line sends a chill down my spine, I’m sold. I’ve tried to study the stories that give me that feeling, and it seems like momentum might be the most important factor in producing the kind of ending that grabs me by the collar and shakes me. Especially when a story accelerates before a hard stop. Or accelerates off a cliff that leaves you grasping for another sentence. But really, just so long as the author has complete control of the momentum leading up to that final line.

I feel like this list could go on and on, but I should also say that when an author can write gorgeous sentences, I’m willing to forgive a lot. If I’m bowled over by the sentence-level writing, it becomes very easy to fall in love with a story.

KB: What do you think is the hardest part of being an editorial assistant? The easiest?

GH: So far the hardest part—or I guess I should say the most tedious­­—has been editing the contributor bios. They’re a part of the journal I’d hardly given any thought to, but we go through them with a fine-tooth comb, verifying the exact name of every award, the publication date of every book, the precise spelling of every name, and fact-checking all the honorifics. It’s been eye-opening, though, in terms of understanding how much attention and care go into each issue, and it has also been a great way to expand my knowledge of all the grants, fellowships, and residencies I ought to be applying for.

As for the easiest part, I definitely have the most fun reading and evaluating submissions. Most days, I sit at my desk feeling like a kid who has been given keys to the candy shop. It’s my job to read stories all day? Clearly, I must be doing something right!

KB: Aside from The Southern Review, what would be your dream journal to edit? Why?

GH: I’m glad you asked! This is actually something that has been on my mind a lot lately as the specter of graduation looms on the horizon and I plot my next move. So I’m going to name four, actually: Granta, Gulf Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and ZYZZYVA, all of which I admire for different reasons. I see Granta as a unique hub for an international literary community, and can’t really think of another journal that spans such a wide geography or engages in a dialogue that encompasses so much in terms of global culture and politics. VQR is doing something similar, and I’m constantly impressed with the quality of the essays they publish and the level at which they engage with contemporary issues. It’s rare to find journals that publish great fiction, have a gorgeous aesthetic, and are also able to participate in a broader political conversation. Speaking of aesthetics, though, Gulf Coast might be the most beautiful journal out there. Unfortunately for me, they’re a grad journal, and I’m not planning to get another MFA or start a PhD anytime soon, so this particular dream job is a bit unrealistic. But I’m consistently bowled over by their design, by the gorgeous weirdness of the work they publish, and by the emotional resonance of the writing I’ve encountered in their pages. As for ZYZZYVA, at the end of the day my heart is always in California, and their emphasis on publishing from a San Francisco perspective really hits home for me. It’s certainly a dream of mine to move back and join the editorial team there.

But if I can turn this one back around on you, what publications are at top of your dream-job list? Where are you now, and what professional goals do you have your sights set on?

KB: Your list is pretty similar to mine! Along with those publications, I’d include The Sun, A Public Space, The Offing, and Oxford American. All do incredible things with design, awareness, and community outreach. I’d echo your statement about political engagement, and agree that I admire journals that make institutional and editorial commitments to these larger conversations. Plus, I’m always a sucker for excellent aesthetics—I blame Emily and Jessica’s influence, they have such great taste and have always been committed to championing local, emerging artists. Regionally, I’m so excited and impressed by the relaunches of The Arkansas International and The Sewanee Review, and I continually reference Hobart, Recommended Reading, Joyland, and Paper Darts for forward-looking writing online.

 I recently moved to Portland, Oregon, which, compared to Baton Rouge, is a real culture shock of composting, veganism, and sub-seventy-degree weather. Though I miss Louisiana all the time, so far I love life in the Northwest (no cockroaches!). I’m about to start a part-time marketing position with Counterpoint Press and Catapult Books. They publish amazing books and I’m so thrilled to be involved. Long term, I hope to continue to discover and promote writers I admire, though I’m still uncertain what form that will take professionally.

Moving on, name five stories you’ve read in the past year that have had the most impact on you as a reader and/or as a writer.

GH:     “Going North” by Andrew Mitchell (Gulf Coast)

“L. Debard and Aliette” by Lauren Groff (The Atlantic)

“How Soon is Now?” by Alicia D. Ortega (The Arkansas International)

“The Itch and the Touch” by Evan Lavender-Smith (The Southern Review)

“Brownies” by ZZ Packer (Drinking Coffee Elsewhere)

KB: And finally, what are you working on right now?

GH: For my thesis, I’m at work on a novel about a performance artist who gets maimed by his audience during one of his shows, and then becomes a cult leader while in a vegetative state. I’m hoping it will be funny, but the jury is still out on that one. And then, because one book apparently isn’t life-consuming enough, I’m also writing a book-length essay about the usefulness of pain. The nonfiction project is still coming together, but I’m imagining it will eventually be roughly one part travel writing, one part nature writing, and one part memoir.

What about you? Have you been shopping around your novel? Is there a new one in the works?

KB: I can’t wait to read both of those books! They sound equally fascinating, and hats off to you for having both fiction and nonfiction projects in progress. I’m still working on my novel about Utah, hedge funds, and the Southwestern water crisis. When I graduated this May, I thought I was nearly done, but then I went to the Tin House Summer Workshop and worked with Mat Johnson and realized, thankfully, how much I still needed to do. (If you want a recommendation, apply to this conference! It was an amazing, formative experience. Also, Mat is a comedic literary genius.) I’m hoping to tie up the manuscript’s loose ends by the beginning of next year, but we’ll see. Aside from submitting stories, I’m developing an idea for my next book. It involves college athletics recruitment, Louisiana, and a pair of sisters; so far it’s just character sketches, but it’s enough that I’m eager to finish my first manuscript so I can move on to this one.

Garrett Hazelwood is the editorial assistant at The Southern Review. He was the 2017 recipient of the Kent Gramm MFA Award for Literary Nonfiction and his work was recently anthologized in Eclectica Magazine’s twentieth anniversary anthology of speculative fiction. He’s currently writing a novel and at work on a book-length essay about his travels.

Kathleen Boland is a recent graduate of LSU’s MFA program, where she served as the 2016­–2017 editorial assistant of The Southern Review and received the 2017 Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award. Her work has appeared in Paper Darts, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and Tin House Online.

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