2013 Writers@Work interview with Steve Woodward, Associate Editor at Graywolf Press
What inspired you to become an agent, publisher, or consultant?
As an avid reader, I wanted to know what went in to making a book. So I did everything I could to learn, from classes on book arts, to volunteering at a college literary magazine, to pursuing my own writing in an MFA program. Along the way I discovered the thrill of finding new authors I’d never heard of before via literary magazines—and I never looked back. Finding new authors and helping to get their voices out into the world to be heard is still my greatest thrill, and was what led me to publishing.
Are there any occupational hazards to being an agent, publisher, or consultant?
You mean beyond carpal tunnel, glasses, and chronic hand-wringing? Then it would have to be that, at times, the sheer volume of reading—making it your business to read—can strip some of the pleasure out of the act itself. But then, the right book can wipe all that away in an instant.
What are some day jobs you have held? How did any of them influence your work?
The volunteer positions I’ve held have been more influential to me than day jobs. I volunteered first at a student literary magazine, then at a book review, then another magazine in Michigan, followed by internships at two small presses, one in Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul. All of the work I did prior to publishing that has proven valuable I did for free.
What books have most influenced your taste in writing?
Hard to answer this one, as my taste continues to evolve, but a few perennial favorites would have to be One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez; Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy; and The Shipping News, Annie Proulx.
What books are you reading now?
Among others: I Want to Show You More, Jamie Quatro; Kind One, Laird Hunt; Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru; In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, Matt Bell; Umbrella, Will Self.
What inspires you?
Authors inspire me by re-seeing the world in ways I would never have imagined, and the world inspires me by being far stranger and more delightful in reality than any fiction could hope to be. It’s a cycle that feeds upon itself.
What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?
Early on, remember that what matters is the sentences on the page. Make them memorable. When you are well underway, avoid thinking that the world owes you anything simply because you’ve written. It doesn’t. Once complete, avoid thinking that because the writing of the book is finished, the work is also. It isn’t. Above all, avoid thinking that you are going it alone. You aren’t. Because we’re all in this together: writers, readers, publishers, teachers, booksellers, librarians, and more all give the book a life beyond the page.
What is it that makes a collection (poems, essays, or stories) hang together?
There are many things that bind a collection, but one important form of unity stems from the close marriage of the voice and style with the demands of the subject (this can apply equally to prose and poetry). That is, when a collection is working right, you’ll see that it’s written in a style that reflects the nature of the subject. This language-based unity can transcend more overt mechanisms like intentional linking through character or place (though that can be successful as well).
How do you know when a book or individual piece is complete?
In publishing, there’s always a deadline. But if we leave that out of it: a moment often arrives, in the process of working on a book with an author, when you begin to get diminishing returns. You put the same amount of work in, but receive smaller and smaller results. That’s when you know it’s time to make your peace and move forward.
What are some of your favorite publishing projects or successes?
Susan Steinberg’s story collection Spectacle continues to amaze me with the way people have responded to her fierce and original storytelling. One reviewer called it the next Jesus’ Son. I can’t think of higher praise for a story collection than that! I’m also completely in love with Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, which came out in April. It’s a wildly brilliant novel in the vein of Pynchon and DeLillo about a hapless cult leader who aims to eradicate loneliness. Need I say more?
What do you think is the future of writing? How will technology change literature?
I’m not any good at this sort of prognostication (who is?), but I think it’s fair to say that writing as a means of expression and connection will continue to be central to our lives. Technology, rather than displacing that, has only made good writing more integral to our lives. If you are asking about how we consume literature, that’s another matter entirely—but I’m a big believer in making literature available in all possible formats, and letting readers decide how they want to engage with the work. And technology has provided many new ways of getting books, stories, and poems into the hands of more readers faster than ever. Let’s hope that continues!
Writers @ Work is holding its annual writers conference at Alta Lodge in Alta, Utah, from June 5-9. See our conference page for all the details and register today!