Susan Henderson is a Pushcart nominee, a recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She recently helped judge the “20-Minute Stories Contest” at McSweeney’s. She is the former managing editor of literary magazine Night Train. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Extra, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, North Atlantic Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium, Other Voices, Amazon Shorts, The World Trade Center Memorial, and The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and professor. They live in New York with their two boys.
Wayne: When you were managing editor at Night Train, you were instrumental in getting the journal to write detailed responses to those writers who submitted manuscripts, regardless of whether their stories were being considered. Why was that important to you as an editor? As a writer?
Sue: Just the sheer volume of writers compared to a puny pool of readers makes publishing a mean game. And what you learn right away when you become an editor is that you’ll have to reject almost every story that comes your way. I “considered” maybe one in every 800 submissions, and only a small fraction of those stories were published. There’s no way around sending out thousands of rejections if you’re putting out a great magazine.
But before you’re an editor, you’re a human being–and a human being who knows what goes into writing a story. That submission you get is a little corner of someone’s life or imagination, and it just seems like you want to treat that with care.
Submitting to a magazine, for a lot of people, is like being in the junior high cafeteria, holding a lunch tray, and there’s nowhere to sit, and you’re afraid if you ask for a seat no one will scoot over. I didn’t want to be a part of making anyone feel that way. So, if I laughed when I read someone’s story, I told them so. And if I noticed that sentence they worked on for three days, I let them know. Why not?
The other thing I tried to do via my rejection letters was to open doors. I know 60 or 70 literary magazines like the back of my hand. If someone sent us a story that was a perfect fit for some contest I knew of, it took all of two minutes of my time to give them the contact information. If I can help save someone another year of knocking on the wrong doors, I’d feel like some kind of a jerk for not speaking up.
It’s also good business sense to be kind. Everyone who submits to you is a potential reader and subscriber to your magazine. The trick, of course, is balancing all of this with how it burdens the staff. The hardest thing about running a magazine, harder than raising the funds, is keeping the morale and work production high with the staff. The editors need as much care as the writers.
Wayne: What are the biggest misconceptions most writers have about the submission process? On the other hand, what could most journals do better?
Sue: I think the biggest misconception is that print magazines carry more weight than online magazines. I can’t tell you how many people found agents and big fan bases through the most unlikely web publications. The thing is, people will actually read those magazines. You get into, say Prairie Schooner, and people will shout hooray for you, but how many go and buy that issue when it comes out two years later with your story in it?
Most magazines fall apart in marketing. My feeling is that if you take a writer’s story, you owe it to them to find an audience.
Wayne: In your short story “Motorhead,” there are a lot of what we might call mementos: songs, titles, recollection of memories. Donato, for instance, at one point asks Lucy: “Why do you keep everything?” Can you talk about how mementos are important to you as a writer, both in how you embed them in stories and how you use them in the actual creative/writing process?
Sue: Most every character I write about is emotionally repressed. I love to write about stoics who are not physically affectionate, not real talkers. So how they treat and store and clean various objects becomes part of the dialogue. And in Motorhead, Lucy expresses her affection for Donato by what she steals from him, what she hoards. She’ll lose that relationship because she can’t say that she cares, but the reader knows she’s saying what she can in her own way.
Wayne: There are a number of books and authors mentioned in the story, but can I ask you why you choose specifically to make “The Lottery” and Let Us Praise Famous Men two of Lucy’s reading touchstones?
Sue: I started having a lot of trouble in school beginning around third grade. I finished my work too soon and then all hell would break loose. So my teachers started pulling me out of class and just giving me books to read. Those were the first two books that really struck me, when I said, Wow! But in elementary school, there’s not a lot of kids who want to spend recess talking about Shirley Jackson or James Agee. I wanted to show that dissonance in Motorhead, how books both save this girl and make her odd and separate from her peers.
This is a pattern I noticed repeating itself with my oldest son. He would stand there in his pull-ups, wanting to talk about the issues of time warp in the Narnia books. This didn’t make him many friends, and it hurts when you see your kid on the outside wanting to be invited in but not wanting to play soldiers or Hoppity-Hop. The funny thing is, the moment–years and years later–when he finally made a best friend who was just like him, all they wanted to do was tell potty jokes together.
Wayne: Can you talk about why you decided to make Motorhead available through Amazon? How has the experience been so far?
Sue: Knowing me, it was an impulsive decision in the middle of the night. I will say that John Hart, who runs the Amazon Shorts program, is a really lovely guy, all the way through the process. That you found and read Motorhead is probably a sign that it’s successful. Availability is half the battle of getting read. Most of my stuff just sits as a comp on one of my bookshelves.
Wayne: You say you caused a lot of trouble in third grade. You’ve said before that this was also the time when you realized you wanted to be a writer. What was it about your teachers and your reading that planted this seed in your head?
Sue: I don’t know what makes a person become a writer–if you’re born a little wonky or if it’s some alignment of external factors. I was just a kid who noticed everything from eraser marks to pencil-holding styles to foot-tapping to baby powder dust to vacuum lines to ripped edges and so on, but often missed the lesson while I was invested in the random detail around me.
Third grade happened to be the year we learned how to write poetry and autobiographies. We watched the movie Animal Farm that year. And I was deeply in love with my teacher who was everything I still fall for today – a wounded soul who feels protective of me.
Wayne: Which other writers were influencing you then? Who do you include among your favorites now, and why?
Sue: My first influences were Laura Ingalls Wilder and Robert Louis Stevenson. Early on, I loved Dylan Thomas and James Dickey. My house was full of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, who are master writers. And Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, who are masters of pacing and emotional _expression. All of these people grounded my ear for story and rhythm.
My favorites now? I love too many. My number one is probably William Maxwell.
Wayne: I know you’re a huge fan of poetry. Can you talk about your favorite poets, and why they are important to you? I know you’re also inclusive enough in your definition of poetry to include a couple popular singers–and rappers! Can you also talk about why your concept of poetry is more inclusionary?
Sue: I have to say Dylan Thomas because he was my first. I love the Hemingway-like bluster of Dickey, the incisiveness of Cornealeus Eady, the tension between gruff and tender of Jim Daniels, the playfulness of Dr. Seuss, the boldness of Nikki Giovanni. Who’s the woman who wrote Vesper Sparrows? She’s wonderful. Homer and Virgil – I get absolutely dizzy over them.
I’ve loved rap since my first two Public Enemy albums, and love Eminem, especially when he’s tongue-in-cheek. Bob Dylan’s a genius. Kim Ritchie, Shawn Mullins, Lucinda Williams – incredible. And Cameron McGill. All great songwriters and wordsmiths.
As far as emerging writers, I’m a big fan of Tiff Holland and the crazy deadpan of Tao Lin. Not into obscure or plodding poetry, though. There’s a lot of it out there and I’m too impatient to wade through it.