Next up in our Meet the Editors series is the fiction team. Senior fiction editor Casey Harding shares his past editing experience with robot language, the multi-talented Haseeb Ali Chishti (now working with the art section of the magazine) listens to Nu-disco when he edits, and Sauleha Kamal quotes Adichie while sipping on cappuccinos.
Dorothy Sayers once said, “The vital power of an imaginative work demands a diversity within its unity; and the stronger the diversity the more massive the unity.” How do you think TMS’ diversity contributes to a collective imagination?
Casey: This may be off the mark a bit but I think that differences of opinion are the main sources of growth for us. I should say that this is only when they are given the time to be understood and aren’t used as points of contention. That is one of the problems with American politics. We have so many differences of opinion, but instead of talking through the differences and using those differences to inform our decisions we instead say that anyone who thinks differently is wrong, end of story. The Missing Slate is a wonderful place to work because the points that we disagree on, admittedly there are not many, fuel a dialogue that helps to shape the future of the magazine. Because of this I was allowed to grow and develop my own style that still keeps in line with where The Missing Slate is going. I wouldn’t say that the diversity contributes to a collective imagination as such, but rather that the diversity creates a more real picture of how the world should work if we all listened to each other rather than looking for a reason to lash out.
Haseeb: Harmony or unity for me isn’t to be found in sameness, it’s rather a recognition of the diversity around you and finding your place in that melange. I think we’re very lucky that even though our staff comes from so many different places and backgrounds, we are all dreaming of the same thing: building a platform for showcasing work that needs to be shared with the world.
Sauleha: Literature is one of the most effective ways to share experiences with people we would never otherwise get to know. TMS routinely publishes work from opposite ends of the world together on the same website; even our editorial team is scattered across the globe. Just reading through the fiction submissions we receive, I often find myself learning about new places and people. A story we published late last year ‘Roseland’ is filled with remembrances for a long life lived. As a young person, it was interesting for me to read about the experiences of age, to glean information that would otherwise have taken years to learn.
When you’re going through submissions, what grabs you about a story? And makes you yawn?
Casey: I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I wouldn’t say ‘yawn’ but there are definitely stories that I get to the end of the first page of that I know will not work for The Missing Slate. With The Missing Slate I don’t get it as much, but when I was working my first literary magazine job I worked for a publication that received hundreds upon hundreds of submissions in a three-month reading period. With that there were one third that just were not good stories. That usually came down to obvious laziness, ridiculous grammar mistakes/misspellings, character names that switched mid-sentence, scenes written in ones and zeroes (a story about a robot who tried to turn human, but halfway through reversed course and spent two pages writing in machine language.) Another third were not right for the magazine because they were romances or genre types that we weren’t publishing. The last third was the most difficult and that’s where I learned what really grabs me. Clear, concise prose and, most importantly, a good story. The best authors are at their base great storytellers. You have to have something to say and then you have to have the skill to tell it well.
Haseeb: I’m a sucker for the little details, the particular eccentricities of place that really root a story in time and space, a writer who takes liberties with the English language.
Yawning? Writers who spend too much time watching TV end up writing as if life was on the screen. Stories from that glazed, 2d perspective is what I have very little time for.
Sauleha: What grabs me about a story is when it doesn’t feel like it’s a story that a writer has written but when the characters feel like real people with real lives. The author needs to have left the story to live a life of its own. What bores me is when I can read hesitation behind the page, the words should come naturally, and readers can tell when they don’t. I’ll leave you with a quote from Keats about poetry which I find just as true for all other forms of writing, “If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.“
What has editing taught you about your own writing?
Casey: The power of a good story. I used to read books and get to the last page and have that shivering feeling I think most of us get when we put down an incredibly powerful book, but I wouldn’t understand what it was about the book that created that reaction. Editing forced me to start to pick apart sentences and to notice the movement of a piece and how the author tied everything together.
Haseeb: It’s definitely helped because it lets you develop your reader-self: you become more aware of what you like in a story and that helps to refine your own writing.
Sauleha: A story should grab the reader’s attention immediately and without preamble. This is especially true of the short story form where one has limited “screen time” and every word costs precious space. It’s a very difficult form; one which almost demands an “in medias res” style.
What do you find most satisfying about the editing process? And most frustrating?
Casey: For me, and for most authors, editing is the majority of writing. You write something on the page, get your idea down, and then comes the real work. That crafting is the most satisfying for me, taking a raw manuscript and creating art. The frustrating part is that I can’t stop. I’m like Borges in that regard and I think I will continue to edit my pieces until I die.
Haseeb: The same satisfaction a jeweller must feel when polishing gemstones. The same frustration that you have when you fail to explain yourself to someone you hold dear.
Sauleha: Satisfying: removing the clutter (which I know as a writer is very hard to see, and why I’m always grateful to my editors) to get to the crux of the story, exposing its beating heart. Writers often can’t edit their work as well as they might another writer’s. I think it’s partly that we don’t want to kill our darlings and partly that there’s this instinctive desire to hide our vulnerabilities by smothering them in other (extraneous) words. Frustrating: having to copy-edit submissions extensively; I am not likely to look favorably upon a submission littered with spelling and grammar mistakes.
What would you like to see more of with submissions?
Casey: A broader scope. There is a whole world of experiences and stories out there and I read very similar stories over and over again. I feel that there has to be more emphasis on past writers. You look back on the greats and where did they get their stories from? Where did they find out how to write how they were writing? It’s a marriage of the past with the present and too often I’m just reading stories that have no such context. With our generation we have such a wealth of knowledge that is not being used!
Haseeb: More experiments with the story format.
Sauleha: Stories that are true to themselves and completely immersed in their worlds. I’ll also add what I’d like to see less: unexplored potential, stories that don’t push or interrogate themselves, the ones that fall short or stop just as they are about to get somewhere.
Is fiction actually closer to the truth? Give an example…a real one, no cheating.
Casey: I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think that my own fiction mirrors truth far too much and I think that that is true of most authors. You can create the most ridiculous story in the world, but if you’re honest about it there are characters that have parts of yourself or those closest to you and there are settings that are riffs on things from your own life. Maybe it’s different for other authors but that’s what happens with me. I’ll write a piece and look back on it years later and think “That is completely so-and-so” or “That’s my childhood backyard!”
Haseeb: The only truth is in fiction! The rest is just conjecture until wrapped in the truth of storytelling.
Sauleha: Than nonfiction? I believe so, yes. Novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote, “ We read memoir and fiction with different eyes…To label something a memoir is, in effect, to tell a reader that they cannot doubt it. You cannot question. It comes with a prepaid label of truth.” We read memoir and fiction “with different eyes,” with visions that have been narrowed through expectations. It is impossible for us to read texts outside of these expectations when we approach them with pre-existing opinions about what we will believe and what we won’t. This, I think, is part of the problem with pre-labeling stories fiction and non-fiction. Adichie is absolutely right: the “prepaid label of truth” does affect how readers see the story. I think we lose something of authenticity in the process of labeling.When all writing is, to some extent, fiction, isn’t it false to set it up as the invariable truth? I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with Adichie about the difference being only in “not how books are written but how we read them.” I would say the difference is in both: as writers, we are only able to present fragments and, as readers, we are only able to see fragments of those fragments, our visions narrowed by expectations and experiences. We are able to see only what we expect to see. There is, of course, no way a single person can access the holistic truth, but it is possible for us to make a conscious effort to resist expectations.
Is there a work of fiction that haunts your dreams? Or otherwise defined a moment in your life?
Casey: There are a few. Sasha Sokolov’s ‘A School for Fools’ and Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’. The Quentin section from ‘The Sound and the Fury’ and ‘As I Lay Dying’ by Faulkner. ‘All the Pretty Horses’ by Cormac McCarthy, ‘Martin Eden’ by Jack London. I’m reading ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’ by Mikhail Sholokhov and I can’t believe that I haven’t read it until now! Such incredible writing. Talk about a great storyteller who has a firm grip on concise, compelling prose. I get chills reading some of his metaphors. They are incredible. I feel like I’m giving an acceptance speech for an award, there are some many other books that haunt me and I feel like I’m going to wake up tomorrow and feel incredible guilt that I didn’t name them. These all have impacted my writing and reading in ways that I didn’t notice until years later.
Haseeb: ‘The Passion of New Eve’ by Angela Carter. A 24-hour reading cycle, two consecutive nights with dreams of genital mutilation and a profound weight of the injustice of our chauvinistic, macho culture on my spindly little shoulders.
Sauleha: Not a work of fiction exactly but a novelist’s attitude towards writing has stayed with me. One of my university professors, the celebrated British-Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, used to say writing is “a gesture of hope.” There is this aura of hopelessness that surrounds our cultural imagination of the writer, but really this imagination isn’t accurate. A writer after all is a creator and why would one who has given up bother to create?
In Professor Matar’s words: “The hope involved in artistic creation has its feet in the gutter of reality and poverty and injustice, and has its eyes on the stars.”
What is your editing vice of choice: coffee, tea, whisky, wine, cigarettes… purified water?
Casey: I’m no good editing after drinking. It’s hard to stay critical, I usually get in a certain mood and either hate everything I read or love everything I read, so I typically stay away from that. I’d say that 99% of the time I edit in the morning with coffee. Writing is a completely different story, though I can’t write after drinking much. A beer or a glass of wine or some whiskey or an Irish coffee and I can knock out a good amount, anything more and I wake up in the morning to edit and it’s all crap.
Haseeb: A little bit of Nu-disco never hurts to get in the mood to read some great work.
Sauleha: Water all the time (nothing tastes quite as good as water), but in addition to that: cappuccinos when it’s cold, peppermint mocha in the holiday season and iced coffees in the summer.