Each quarter we ask a writer/editor/teacher from the wider writing community to work with our senior editor team to choose the stories for the quarterly issue. From November 16 to February 15, we are thrilled to have Denne Michele Norris on our team. She will also be teaching a module in the January Intensive (Jan 2-29), which you can book in the SmokeLong Shop.
Shasta Grant, SmokeLong’s coordinating editor, interviews Denne Michele below about her work at Electric Literature and what she’s looking for in the SmokeLong queue.
Shasta Grant: It’s been a little over a year since you took the helm as editor-in-chief of Electric Literature. What has the first year been like? Highs and lows? Any unexpected joys or challenges?
Denne Michele Norris: I can honestly say that so far, my time at EL has been amazing. I truly love my job—both the specific hands-on elements of working closely with so many writers to tell some incredible stories, and of nurturing talent, and also the bigger picture aspects of representing a prominent literary journal and using our place in the industry to elevate as many voices as possible. We were elated to win this year’s Whiting Literary Magazine Prize because it means our efforts are being recognized, and allows us to continue doing this work.
One of the pieces of advice people often give aspiring writers is to work at literary journals because doing so will make you a better writer. And that’s completely true, on every level. So my editorial work, up until this point, was self-serving in that way. I have always loved editing, but my efforts were also self-serving in that they were in service to the development of my own writing. But the very best part of getting this job is the realization that my love for editing, and my ambitions as an editor, can be pursued with the same kind of dogged determination I employ in the pursuit of my writing. I care as much about my work as an editor as I do my own writing. And I hadn’t known that was possible before getting the job at EL.
Being a full-time editor has also given me a whole new appreciation for the amount of work editors have to juggle—sometimes I’m more successful and other times I’m less successful—so I’m far more patient, now, than I used to be.
What do you look for as an editor when you’re reading submissions? Are there particular themes or styles that appeal to you?
One of the challenges I anticipated was that my experience as an editor was largely limited to fiction. Many people often said to me, in those early weeks, “prose is prose”, and of course that’s true, but it doesn’t negate that essay writing is obviously very different from fiction. In the last year, this has necessitated refining so many of my own ideas about essays—what they are, how they function, and the ethical aspects of writing personal, truthful stories that do, and sometimes don’t, account for the context and people around them. One thing I’ve been thinking deeply about is the word “essay” as a verb.
I say all that to say that what I’m always looking for, in every submission, is the investigation, the pursuit, the essay (verb) within the essay. What is it that the writing is trying to work out, to excavate? What journey are they on, and where are they planning to take our readers? Because we often accept work based on pitches, it’s important to say what you want to say, as the author, in the pitch, if you want to convince me, as reader, and editor, to join you on your journey. I am always looking for rigor, for a new or unexpected angle, and some kind of discovery, at work in the piece.
What advice do you have for writers who are new to submitting their work?
My advice is not to worry too much about the rejections. They will always come. Rejection, as an artist, is as predictable as rain in April. Pay attention to the feedback, if there is any, but mostly just keep going. You must keep going if your work is going to be read. Pursue excellence in your craft, but keep going. It’s okay to take breaks, to protect your work, and your mental health. But keep going. You must keep going.
What have you been reading lately and/or what is in your TBR pile?
I’ve been an enormous Elizabeth Strout fan—I’ve probably reached stan status—since Olive Kitteridge, so I reread the Lucy Barton books in preparation for the publication of Lucy by The Sea. I’m also reading the extraordinary short story collection I Know You Know Who I Am by Peter Kispert, and I just started The Women Could Fly, by Megan Giddings, whom I met when SmokeLong accepted my story “Daddy’s Boy” years ago. I read the novel Revival Season by Monica West a few months ago and I’m still obsessed with it. I’m equally obsessed with My Government Means to Kill Me by Rasheed Newsome, which I read about a month ago. Coming up is Rebecca Makkai’s new book, I Have Some Questions For You, Fatimah Asghar’s When We Were Sisters, Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, Jennifer Fliss’ The Predatory Animal Ball which should be of particular interest to lovers of flash fiction, Sarah Thankam Mathews’ All This Could Be Different, and my spirit is telling me it will soon be time to reread Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon. I’ve recently paused my own writing, for a few weeks, so I’ve dived headfirst into so many books. I’m drowning in books and I couldn’t be happier.
Denne Michele Norris is the editor-in-chief of Electric Literature, winner of the 2022 Whiting Literary Magazine Prize, where she is the first Black, openly trans woman to helm a major literary publication. A 2021 Out100 Honoree, her writing has been supported by MacDowell, the Tin House Summer Workshop, The Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction, and VCCA, and her short stories appear in McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, and others. She is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a finalist for the 2018 Best Small Fictions Prize, and co-hosts the critically acclaimed podcast Food 4 Thot. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.
Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. She has received residencies from Hedgebrook and The Kerouac Project and was selected as a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow. Her work has appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Hobart, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Indianapolis.