This is the second in a series. The first part of our interview was about Ms Hallstom’s novel-in-stories Bound on Earth. This is about her editorship of the literary journal Irreantum. The third part, on the short-story collection she mentions below, will appear in A Motley Vision next year.
Describe what you see in submissions. Do you have plenty of work to choose from? Not enough? (You might mention the contest as well, how that plays in.)
We receive more submissions in some genres than others, and I think this has a lot to do with our contests. Over the last three or four years, we’ve received a pretty healthy number of submissions to our fiction contest. Each year we receive between 60-100 submissions, so that leaves us a lot to choose from and allows us to select the best-of-the-best. It’s interesting, though, how the quality of submissions waxes and wanes: some years, we have so many good stories that we wish we could give a cash award to more than first, second, and third place; other years, the committee struggles to come to a consensus on which stories deserve a cash award. Generally speaking, though, there are usually between 12-15 stories each year that are worthy of serious consideration, which is a good number.
The England Essay contest is newer and not as well-known as the fiction contest, but last year we received over 40 submissions, and I was extremely pleased with the quality of essays we received. We could still use a lot more in the way of poetry and would love to see more unsolicited critical essays and reviews.
How much autonomy do you have as editor?
Quite a bit. I do work closely with the AML board, and I’m always aware that Irreantumis an arm of the AML and should help further its goals. AML President Boyd Petersen’s recent blog post emphasizing the AML’s position in the “radical middle” of Mormon letters is an excellent articulation of what I see as Irreantum‘s aesthetic.
I also don’t make very many decisions entirely on my own. I rely a lot on my section editors and managing editor, and enjoyed working with my former co-editor Scott Hatch. I’m excited about working with Jack Harrell and have found him to be an excellent partner as well. He and I have similar literary taste and have similar goals for the journal, so it’s a good pairing.
Do you see each issue as a cohesive whole? Do you pick stories that go together or just the best you have at the time?
Generally speaking, we usually go with the best of what we have at the time. Under Laraine Wilkins, Irreantum experimented with themed issues (and we might do a themed issue or two in the future), but I’m more interested in showcasing the very best in creative and critical work, regardless of theme or subject. I do find it interesting, though, how themes tend to emerge once I start putting the issue together. This issue contains some excellent photography by Val Brinkerhoff, and I was stunned at how well his photography paired with so many of our stories. It was as if I’d special-ordered some of them after the fact.
Ideally, do the issues build upon each other, or is each one a standalone artifact?
Well, ideally, each issue will be the best possible issue we can put out at the time, given the quality of submissions we’ve received. Do I hope thatIrreantum will continue to increase in quality as time goes on? Certainly. But I can’t necessarily say that this 2009 double issue is better than the double issue I edited in 2008, or Laraine Wilkins’ poetry issue I helped finish after her death in 2006. Each issue has its own strengths. There’s a lot of excellent stuff in the very first issues of Irreantum edited by Chris Bigelow ten years ago. So I suppose I do see each issue as a standalone artifact. It’s my hope that each issue of Irreantum will be able to stand on its own as a reflection of what’s going on in Mormon lit during the time it’s published and that Irreantum will continue to grow and change in interesting ways.
How do you deal with your readers’ expectations of propriety?
Over the last year, I’ve been faced with this question a lot as I’ve edited both Irreantum and the new short fiction anthology Dispensation (soon to be released by Zarahemla Books) and taught at the BYU Salt Lake Center. Of course, we each have our own definition of what is appropriate and what isn’t, even among Mormons. There will be some readers who feel that Irreantum plays it too safe, and there will be other readers who feel thatIrreantum has pushed the envelope a little bit too far. The fact that I’ve heard complaints from both sides of the appropriateness debate actually gives me a measure of confidence that Irreantum is representing that “radical middle” I referenced above. We also have a really great essay by Jack Harrell in the upcoming issue, “Human Conflict and the Mormon Writer,” that speaks eloquently to this (seemingly eternal) Mormon question of appropriateness in artistic expression. So as soon as you get your hands on our upcoming issue, read Jack’s essay and imagine me saying, “What he said!” when you’re finished.
Based on what you’re seeing, what’s the state of Mormon short fiction here, now, in 2009? And how does its health compare to that of Mormon poetry and essays?
I think Mormon short fiction is quite healthy. Speaking both as the editor of Irreantum and as the editor of Dispensation, I know we have some fantastic young(ish) writers who are writing short stories for both the Mormon market and for mainstream lit mags and other publications. It’s my opinion that the Mormon short story is in better shape, overall, than the Mormon novel, although we’ve seen an increase in quality with Mormon novels over the last decade or so as well. This isn’t to say that publications like Irreantum are swimming in top-notch short stories. Many of the writers I worked with on Dispensation aren’t writing for the Mormon market or actively submitting to Mormon magazines, so if we want their work we have to ask for it. The majority of Irreantum‘s fiction submissions need a lot of work. But I have seen an increase in overall quality and certainly have more good short stories from which to choose than we did when I started out working on the magazine five years ago.
I’m also excited about some of the new voices in creative nonfiction that I’ve come across. As I said, we received a lot of great stuff for this year’s England Essay Contest, and many of these writers were in their twenties. I have a suspicion that many of them are coming out of BYU and that BYU professor Patrick Madden’s emphasis on the essay is paying real dividends. (See Patrick’s website Quotidiana here: ). Irreantum‘s creative nonfiction editor, Brittney Carman, is also an up-and-coming personal essayist and one of the best writers I have the privilege of knowing in real life. Segullah, too, does a lot to promote the personal essay. So there’s a lot of good creative-nonfiction mojo out there.
I do wishIrreantumsaw more poetry. I suspect that if we had a poetry contest, we’d see the same uptick in submissions (both quantity and quality) that we’ve had with fiction and the essay. I’m looking into that. But the poetry that we do eventually decide to publish is very good–we just don’t publish as much of it as I’d like to.
Thanks for the opportunity to talk aboutIrreantum. I’m excited about this latest issue. We’ve had a few delays at the printer, but the journal should be mailed out VERY soon. If you haven’t subscribed yet, do it now!