IN OTHER WORDS #9 – Josh Denslow
This is the ninth and final installment of IN OTHER WORDS, a feature we’re running in 2014 in which we interview various editors on the art of editing.
This time, we’re talking to Josh Denslow, staff editor for SmokeLong Quarterly and an Associate Editor for Unstuck.
1/You’re on the masthead of two fairly well-known journals—Unstuck and Smokelong Quarterly. Would you talk about how you got involved with these publications and why editing is an important part of your role in the literary community?
Basically, I attacked Matt Williamson at an American Short Fiction party here in Austin because I felt like we had the same taste. If I’d created a journal (which I can’t see me ever doing), it would have been exactly like Unstuck with the same sensibilities. I thrust one of my stories on him (via Submittable, of course) which I was later told made it rather far in the process. But they ultimately passed. (That story is still unpublished, years later, proving Matt is smarter than I am.) It’s possible he felt the connection I was foisting on him, but somehow I was suddenly reading for the next issue and even doing some actual editing, which I’ve always wanted to do. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Unstuck is on a hiatus for now that I truly have no idea how long will last. (Very, very sad indeed.)
As for Smokelong, I wanted to be published by them more than any other place online. I’d tried quite a few stories, but looking back, I was still trying to figure out how to write flash. Ironically, I still don’t know how, and I have pretty much given it up. (I’m a good reader of flash, though.) But there was this one weekend where I rode a unicorn to pick up a chocolate malt and the sun shone down on me all day and I didn’t get sunburned. If I was ever going to write a good flash piece, I figured it had to be that weekend. When I was finished, I knew I’d written my Smokelong story. It was 1100 words so I spent another week getting it under their 1000-word deadline, and I submitted to only them. That stands as the one time in my life that the first place I submitted a story accepted it for publication. And that started my beautiful love affair with Smokelong and the most amazing group of editors ever. Tara asked me to do a guest editing week and I almost died. Then not long later, she asked me to come on full time, and I realized I had died, which then explained the unicorn and the chocolate malt.
Working on these two journals showed me two things:
1: There are a ton of good stories out there. And that’s the truth. The reason it’s hard to get published is because there are just too many stories to choose from. We reject stories all the time that I know I’m going to see somewhere else. It’s a tough job.
2: Editors want to see you succeed. At least, I do. I was surprised by how editing enhanced the good will I feel for all my fellow writers. I know how hard it is to write a story, and I didn’t know too many people in my real life that were doing it. Then suddenly, I was thrust into a world where there were thousands of us. It was awe-inspiring.
2/What is your curatorial process like? When you’re reading for either journal, what goes in to your decisions to argue for the inclusion of a story?
I think the number one driving factor for me is if I would be upset if I saw the story in another journal. When I love something, the story and I create a covalent bond that I can’t let another journal break. I get antsy. I’m convinced if I don’t accept the story right away, I’m going to lose it. And then I’ll have to challenge another journal to an arm wrestling tournament or a fistfight. That’s how I know. It’s that simple. If I start sharing electrons, it’s mine.
3/Name one or two exemplary pieces that you feel really epitomize the journals you’ve edited.
“Armstrong” by Patrick Somerville is the kind of story I wish I wrote. It’s in Issue Three of Unstuck.
From Smokelong, I always direct people to “Amelia Fucking Earhart,” which I found during my first guest editing week and remains one of the best flash pieces I’ve ever read. I wish Angela Allan and I were best friends.
4/Is there an editor or publication that you know to regularly publish solid work, i.e., who do you return to again and again, as a reader?
To be honest with you, I gravitate to the places that publish just a few strong stories rather than dozens of stories in a single issue (Sorry Unstuck!). When I see those massive journals, I feel like I’m the editor and I have to pick out the good ones. But that’s not to say I don’t have room in my heart for the Conjunctions of the world, I just find myself gravitating away from that. I mean, I read the New Yorker story almost every week, but if they compiled it into one volume, I probably wouldn’t. Does that make sense? Am I revealing how crazy I am? Have I answered the question yet? I don’t think so. Tin House is probably my favorite. I think One Story really has something special going. I’ve read some amazing stuff in Indiana Review and Black Warrior Review. As for online, I don’t think you can beat Smokelong (I’m biased, but I’m also a fan!). Or The Collagist. But what it all comes down to is that I never ever ever read as much as I’d like to. Plus all these great books keep coming out. It’s staggering.
5/As a fiction writer, you focus on magic realism/satire. How does that aesthetic affect your curatorial interests? Is there ever overlap?
I try not to let what I write about affect my decisions at Smokelong. I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn if I said that I was the biggest fan of magic realism on the editing staff. Certain stories that come in will give me pause because they contain an element I like, and my brain tries to make the story more successful than it actually is. But I think that’s the same for every reader. Whether you gravitate to magic realism or stories about horse vets, you might want to give a story more credit than it deserves because the writer tickled that special place for you. So in the end, I might actually be harder on magic realism. I guess I’ll never know!
6/In addition to writing, you’re also a drummer for the band Borrisokane (Editor’s note: Go look them up right now—you can thank me later.). Does the kind of collaborative work you do in the band at all mirror the collaboration that takes place between a writer and editor?
The reason I like playing music is that it is entirely different than writing fiction. Sure, there’s an editing process, but it’s so much more playful. We might agonize over certain songs as a band, but there is this unique sense of instant gratification that doesn’t exist in writing. The five of us can get in a room and someone will start playing and we’ll all jump in and suddenly we’re playing a song. Like magic. Most of the times, those jam sessions rarely go anywhere else besides the jam (though we do sometimes germinate the seeds for new songs), but that kind of group journey simply can’t be replicated anywhere else in my life.
Think of the evolution of a story. I sit in a room, sometimes with music playing in the background and sometimes not, and I put words on paper. Even if I talk with an editor about cuts and changes, there’s still the part where I have to sit down, alone, and hash it out. And the editor also did the exact same thing. Sitting alone pondering my story. We might be thinking some of the same things, but we’re never working in concert.
I couldn’t write fiction without playing music. They have to exist together.
7/Since you also have a background in film, do you ever gravitate at all toward any methods of storytelling that are influenced by other media (e.g., stories that use filmic terms or cinematic settings, etc.)?
I’ve been told more than once that my writing is cinematic. I wish I could figure out what I was doing that conveyed that to people so I could hone it more. But I do like the compliment, and I feel it supports the theory that everything in your life ends up in your writing. I went to film school and spent ten years in LA working in television. I wrote and directed five short films and played some festivals and all that. Though I took a break from film to focus on fiction writing for the time being, I have an ever-growing list of ideas that spring up separately from my fiction ideas. These are the movie ideas. I’ve assembled my short collection, finished a novel, and I’m now pages away from a draft of a Young Adult book. I think my film hiatus is coming to an end, and I’m sure that the next big phase of my life (other than getting these damn books published), is to write and direct a feature film. I’m Ahab and making a feature film is my…oh you know the rest.
8/Describe what it’s like to work with you in an editorial capacity, in three words.
Compassionate. Picky. Malleable.
Josh Denslow’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Third Coast, Wigleaf, The Dr. T.J. Eckleburg Review, and Black Clock, among others. He plays the drums in the band Borrisokane, and edits at Smokelong Quartlerly and Unstuck.