Editing, Taking Risks, and the Politics of Language: Getting to Know the Washington Square Fiction Editors
This time of year, the Washington Square Review team is starting spring semester, second years are planning their theses, some members are teaching their first undergraduate class, and the editors are reading hundreds of poetry, fiction and translation submissions. And this year, we have extended our fiction and translation submission deadline to FEBRUARY 15, so we asked our own Fiction Editor Bruna Dantas Lobato and Assistant Fiction Editor Alyssa diPierro a few questions about life, art, and the submission process.
1. Briefly, what drew you to writing fiction in the first place? To editing it?
Fiction Editor Bruna Dantas Lobato: A mix of things: An obsession with words and wordplay. Gratitude for the books that saved me in one way or another. Living in one language and then living in another. An incessant need to tell stories. As for editing, I can’t separate it from my writing practice. I love to read other writers’ texts, to think about what makes them work and how they’d go together in the journal. I learn a great deal about writing that way.
Assistant Fiction Editor Alyssa diPierro: I grew up surrounded by books, and my parents read to me constantly (until I was old enough to read to them!). Eventually, I figured out I could write the books I wanted to read. My interest in editing came much later, but basically, I wanted to help fix the problems or brainstorm solutions to friends' stories who needed advice. I also realized what I enjoyed most about my own writing was editing. Writing is extremely difficult, editing is very pleasurable for me.
2. When you two are choosing fiction and translation pieces for Washington Square Review, what is the first thing you look for in a piece? The second?
B: A singular voice and a willingness to take risks with content and form. I am drawn to stories that traffic in subtleties, that present people and things in a new way (“at a slight angle to the universe”), without ever depriving them of their mystery.
A: The first thing I'm looking for is a tie between the language and the topic. I can look past weaker language if the characters and plot are strong, and vice versa. Secondly, I'm looking for something I haven't seen before. Surprise me, but in a believable way (logical for the world of the piece). Even if it's an everyday story of someone going grocery shopping, if the stakes are high enough, that could be a very interesting trip to the store.
3. When choosing pieces, do you notice yourself being drawn to certain voices/themes/types of work? Which ones and why?
B: I’m always seeking stories that embody a strong sense of place—or placelessness. The ones that excite me most open doors to a multiplicity of perspectives and sensibilities, and leave me seeing and thinking differently.
A: I'm almost always drawn to pieces that take relatable and everyday situations, and present them in a unique way or add a fresh twist to them. It's what I try to do in my own writing, so when I find it elsewhere, I get really excited!
4. With everything going on right now in the world and particularly in America, do you feel that fiction is more or less important, or has its role changed at all?
B: I’m in the camp that believes all literature is inherently political because language is inherently political, in that it carries particles of history and associations and contradictions. It also allows us to bear witness, to render “the substance of the human spectacle” (to quote Henry James)—and that’s no small thing. All that said, everything going on right now has been going on for a long time. To me, it’s neither more nor less important. It’s as urgent as ever.
A: Fiction is extremely important right now, and I think it always will be. And I think it's important to read and write fiction that's political or makes a statement on our current climate, but it's also important to escape. My own fiction is not political at all, and I sometimes feel silly writing it at a time like this, but we all need to escape every once in a while.
5. If you weren't writing and editing fiction right now, what would you be doing?
B: Writing poetry. Or a play. I just can’t imagine not writing at all.
A: Right this second? Probably trying to avoid social media and failing terribly. Or knitting, or cooking, or working out. And feeling guilty that I'm not reading or writing or editing.
6. The last piece of fiction or translation that made you cry?
B: Claudia Rankine's Citizen has made me cry more times than I care to admit, though that's not technically fiction. I was also moved by Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," David Kaplan's "Your Only Mother," and Calo Fernando Abreu's "Beauty, a Terrible Story" (which I translated from the Portuguese recently).
A: It's really hard to get me to cry just from reading, but A Little Life left me bawling.
7. What was your favorite part of editing issue 39?
B: Working with the authors on their pieces, for sure.
A: This was my first time editing specifically for the journal, so that alone was a joy! To have the opportunity to have an input in not only what's in the WSQR, but work with the authors on their pieces was an honor.
8. What advice do you have for writers trying to get published in Washington Square Review?
B: Read our previous issues, don’t be afraid to take chances with your stories, and try reading your work out loud before you hit send.
A: Workshop your stories! Workshops are immensely helpful. If you don't have access to a workshop, find a few trusted friends (preferably fellow writers) to help work on your piece. It's almost always obvious when a piece is submitted that has glaring mistakes or plot holes, and clearly no one but the author has read it.
9. How many fiction pieces typically make it out of the slush pile?
B: We picked 6 pieces after having read over 500 submissions. This means that nearly all the pieces in Issue 39 came from the slush pile.
10. What's your least favorite question to be asked as a writer and/or editor?
B: What’s your book about? Sure, I can give them my elevator pitch. But I’m always disappointed that the description can’t match the experience of reading it.
A: As an editor, I hate: "What are you looking for?" That's such a hard question to answer because I honestly don't know. Just send me your best stuff, and we'll go from there!