The Best of Mormonism 2009: An interview with its editor

bestof2009_spine.

When I first heard of this anthology, I did not know it was intended to be a yearly series. So when I noticed the 2009 on the cover I was thrilled.

The anthology includes work from Irreantum to The Iowa Review and points inbetween. A goodly percentage of it is from LDSy publications, but not at all all — just over 50% (I redid my math after the interview, but I’ve put the full contents and their original sources up at The Mormon Arts Wiki if you want to know more.)

The anthology is solid. Not entirely representative of my own taste, but why should it be? I interviewed the book’s editor (Stephen Carter, also the head editor of Sunstone) about this exciting new addition to Mormon letters — one I hope lasts a long, long time.

Someday I hope to have a full shelf of these babies in all different colors.

*

First, I’m so glad you’re doing this. I think it’s going to fill an important need in Mormon letters. How did you hit upon the idea?
I started thinking about it when I was in grad school. I was finishing up some personal essays and was wondering where I should send them. The New Yorker came to mind first, then the caffeine wore off. But that was the direction my mind was going: national “secular” publications. Because that’s the way you get a job teaching in a college. That’s the way you get publishers to pick up your book. It made sense.
But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that if I sent my writing to the reviews, it was very unlikely that more than a handful of Mormons would ever read it. I realized then that I really wanted to communicate with my own community. I really wanted to add my voice and hopefully make an impact. So I sent my stuff off to Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum. It turned out to be a good choice for me.
While I was in grad school, five Mormons cycled through the creative writing program. If this is true of other creative writing programs then we have a huge crop of potential Miltons and Shakespeares out there. Most of them will decide to send their writing to the national publications, and it will be a good choice for them. However, the Mormon community will remain largely unaware of them. We’ll never know how much talent our culture has produced.
The Best of Mormonism is my attempt to gather in the best stuff our writers are publishing and make it easily available to our community. Hopefully this will result in more awareness of our writers and more support for them.
How did you set about finding work from the more obscure journals?
That was a big game of asking around. I emailed every university writing program I could find; I tapped the Association for Mormon Letters; I talked with editors, writers, and professors. I was a machine!
Did you have a plan in mind for balancing work from Mormon journals with works from other sources?
I tried to represent as many Mormon journals and magazines as I could. I’m hoping that many of the people who purchase The Best of Mormonism don’t subscribe to Mormon publications and will be pleasantly surprised to find out that they too put out worthy material (and hopefully subscribe to a few). But my main thrust was to find stuff that no one was likely to have read. I wanted the contents to be at least 80 percent new even to people who subscribe to all the Mormon publications.
Did you just fill the book till you ran out of things you liked? (Because I wish it was about fifty pages longer, myself.)
The book was mailed out to Irreantum and Sunstone subscribers under a bulk mail permit, and it turned out that 200 pages was the limit. So I got as close to that as I could (contents plus preface, introduction, etc.). There was more that I could have included, and it killed me not to. Maybe we should have a Web addendum next time.
Looking to the future, I should first mention that when I look at your book I think immediately of the Houghton Mifflin Best American…. books. One of their strengths, in my opinion, is that each year a new editor makes the selections, making sure that we don’t get the same book each year. Do you have plans for guest editors? If so, how will you select them. If not, why not?
Yeah, the Best of Mormonism was definitely inspired by the Best American Series. I’m a loyal buyer of the Best American Essays, and you’re right, I’m always interested to see who will edit next and what he or she will put together. I am planning to find guest editors, especially since nobody actually knows my name, and the guest editor’s name is supposed to be a selling point.
I know that Robert Atwan (the series editor for the Best American Essays) selects his guest editors from his roster of writers who have been included in past issues. I guess I’ll give that a try. Failing that, maybe I’ll just hit Jack Weyland up.
I liked the mix of play, poetry, short story and essay (though the final selection definitely betrays you as an essayist yourself). Are you open to other forms as well (eg comics, sermons, excerpts from longer works, etc)?
You know, I tried my darndest to find some comics. But I just couldn’t dig any up. (That was before I knew you had so many connections.) The next issue will most definitely feature comics. As for excerpts from longer works, I do have a chapter from Kathryn Lynard Soper’s memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born, as well as a poem from Neil Aitken’s Philip Levine-award winning collection The Lost Country of Sight. And I would love to find a beautifully-written sermon. It’s a lost art. But I guess I just don’t travel in the right circles to find them. Suggestions are welcome.
I’m with you completely in seeking out those poor lost Mormons in the national rags. This year, by my math, only about 30% of the included work came from extraMormon sources. Do you think you will hit 80% next year?
You and I must have used different criteria for figuring that. Seven of the pieces come from extraMormon and eight from Mormon sources. (Perhaps you were counting pages.) But I’m still pretty sure that 80 percent of the writing will be new to 95 percent of the readers. For example, James Goldberg’s marvelous play “Prodigal Son” was self-published, Angela Hallstrom’s story “Who Do You Think You Are?” (which I nominated for a Pushcart Prize, by the way) was published as a part of her novel Bound on Earth by a small Mormon press called Parables, and I had some stuff from Dialogue, Sunstone, Segullah, BYU Studies, and Irreantum. I can’t imagine there are more than 50 people in the world who somehow possess all these publications.
But, yes. I really do want to bring up the number of pieces from national publications.
Related observation: To gain the widest reach, you’ll need a dropbox of some sort, much as Houghton Mifflin does for Best American Comics. (Although in your case, an electronic dropbox would probably be more successful, since people publishing in Kenyon Review can’t necessarily afford to send you a copy and KR might not see you as worth their time. Yet. They’ll come around.) Any plans to allow/ease submissions of published work?
Right now I have an email address where people can send me PDFs of their work: bestofmormonism@gmail.com. It ain’t pretty, but it works. I’ll put a link to that on the website, which also isn’t pretty at the moment, but will improve: bestofmormonism.com.
What sort of publication dates make something eligible for inclusion in Best of Mormonism? Do these times overlap?
For the 2009 edition, I took stuff from 2007 and 2008. I plan to keep it open for the two years preceding the publication of a new collection.
I know its early, but how’s reaction been so far?
A professor at UVU is going to use it for his next Mormon Literature class, which makes me very happy. It doesn’t seem too long ago that I was taking a Mormon Lit class from Gene England, and it amazes me that I’m helping to produce the stuff being read in those classes now.
I’ve heard compliments from up and down the orthodoxy spectrum, which makes me even happier. I really wanted this publication to embody both the diversity of Mormon writing and the common strands that hold us together. I wanted it to be an aesthetic and spiritual delight. After all, the two are often one and the same. I’ve always liked the idea of Zion, where diversity comes together to form something unified and beautiful; and I tried to create a little of that between the covers of this book.

First, I’m so glad you’re doing this. I think it’s going to fill an important need in Mormon letters. How did you hit upon the idea?

I started thinking about it when I was in grad school. I was finishing up some personal essays and was wondering where I should send them. The New Yorker came to mind first, then the caffeine wore off. But that was the direction my mind was going: national “secular” publications. Because that’s the way you get a job teaching in a college. That’s the way you get publishers to pick up your book. It made sense.

But the more I thought about it, the more I understood that if I sent my writing to the reviews, it was very unlikely that more than a handful of Mormons would ever read it. I realized then that I really wanted to communicate with my own community. I really wanted to add my voice and hopefully make an impact. So I sent my stuff off to Dialogue, Sunstone, and Irreantum. It turned out to be a good choice for me.

While I was in grad school, five Mormons cycled through the creative writing program. If this is true of other creative writing programs then we have a huge crop of potential Miltons and Shakespeares out there. Most of them will decide to send their writing to the national publications, and it will be a good choice for them. However, the Mormon community will remain largely unaware of them. We’ll never know how much talent our culture has produced.

The Best of Mormonism is my attempt to gather in the best stuff our writers are publishing and make it easily available to our community. Hopefully this will result in more awareness of our writers and more support for them.

How did you set about finding work from the more obscure journals?

That was a big game of asking around. I emailed every university writing program I could find; I tapped the Association for Mormon Letters; I talked with editors, writers, and professors. I was a machine!

Did you have a plan in mind for balancing work from Mormon journals with works from other sources?

I tried to represent as many Mormon journals and magazines as I could. I’m hoping that many of the people who purchase The Best of Mormonism don’t subscribe to Mormon publications and will be pleasantly surprised to find out that they too put out worthy material (and hopefully subscribe to a few). But my main thrust was to find stuff that no one was likely to have read. I wanted the contents to be at least 80 percent new even to people who subscribe to all the Mormon publications.

Did you just fill the book till you ran out of things you liked? (Because I wish it was about fifty pages longer, myself.)

The book was mailed out to Irreantum and Sunstone subscribers under a bulk mail permit, and it turned out that 200 pages was the limit. So I got as close to that as I could (contents plus preface, introduction, etc.). There was more that I could have included, and it killed me not to. Maybe we should have a Web addendum next time.

Looking to the future, I should first mention that when I look at your book I think immediately of the Houghton Mifflin Best American…. books. One of their strengths, in my opinion, is that each year a new editor makes the selections, making sure that we don’t get the same book each year. Do you have plans for guest editors? If so, how will you select them. If not, why not?

Yeah, the Best of Mormonism was definitely inspired by the Best American Series. I’m a loyal buyer of the Best American Essays, and you’re right, I’m always interested to see who will edit next and what he or she will put together. I am planning to find guest editors, especially since nobody actually knows my name, and the guest editor’s name is supposed to be a selling point.

I know that Robert Atwan (the series editor for the Best American Essays) selects his guest editors from his roster of writers who have been included in past issues. I guess I’ll give that a try. Failing that, maybe I’ll just hit Jack Weyland up.

I liked the mix of play, poetry, short story and essay (though the final selection definitely betrays you as an essayist yourself). Are you open to other forms as well (eg comics, sermons, excerpts from longer works, etc)?

You know, I tried my darndest to find some comics. But I just couldn’t dig any up. (That was before I knew you had so many connections.) The next issue will most definitely feature comics. As for excerpts from longer works, I do have a chapter from Kathryn Lynard Soper’s memoir The Year My Son and I Were Born, as well as a poem from Neil Aitken’s Philip Levine-award winning collection The Lost Country of Sight. And I would love to find a beautifully-written sermon. It’s a lost art. But I guess I just don’t travel in the right circles to find them. Suggestions are welcome.

I’m with you completely in seeking out those poor lost Mormons in the national rags. This year, by my math, only about 30% of the included work came from extraMormon sources. Do you think you will hit 80% next year?

You and I must have used different criteria for figuring that. Seven of the pieces come from extraMormon and eight from Mormon sources. (Perhaps you were counting pages.) But I’m still pretty sure that 80 percent of the writing will be new to 95 percent of the readers. For example, James Goldberg’s marvelous play “Prodigal Son” was self-published, Angela Hallstrom’s story “Who Do You Think You Are?” (which I nominated for a Pushcart Prize, by the way) was published as a part of her novel Bound on Earth by a small Mormon press called Parables, and I had some stuff from Dialogue, Sunstone, Segullah, BYU Studies, and Irreantum. I can’t imagine there are more than 50 people in the world who somehow possess all these publications.

But, yes. I really do want to bring up the number of pieces from national publications.

Related observation: To gain the widest reach, you’ll need a dropbox of some sort, much as Houghton Mifflin does for Best American Comics. (Although in your case, an electronic dropbox would probably be more successful, since people publishing in Kenyon Review can’t necessarily afford to send you a copy and KR might not see you as worth their time. Yet. They’ll come around.) Any plans to allow/ease submissions of published work?

Right now I have an email address where people can send me PDFs of their work: bestofmormonism@gmail.com. It ain’t pretty, but it works. I’ll put a link to that on the website, which also isn’t pretty at the moment, but will improve: bestofmormonism.com.

What sort of publication dates make something eligible for inclusion in Best of Mormonism? Do these times overlap?

For the 2009 edition, I took stuff from 2007 and 2008. I plan to keep it open for the two years preceding the publication of a new collection.

I know its early, but how’s reaction been so far?

A professor at UVU is going to use it for his next Mormon Literature class, which makes me very happy. It doesn’t seem too long ago that I was taking a Mormon Lit class from Gene England, and it amazes me that I’m helping to produce the stuff being read in those classes now.

I’ve heard compliments from up and down the orthodoxy spectrum, which makes me even happier. I really wanted this publication to embody both the diversity of Mormon writing and the common strands that hold us together. I wanted it to be an aesthetic and spiritual delight. After all, the two are often one and the same. I’ve always liked the idea of Zion, where diversity comes together to form something unified and beautiful; and I tried to create a little of that between the covers of this book.

*

If you don’t have a copy folks, I recommend it. You won’t want this hole in your collection.

11 thoughts on “The Best of Mormonism 2009: An interview with its editor”

  1. Great interview. It’s an excellent anthology, and I’m extremely grateful to Stephen and Sunstone for teaming up with Irreantum and sending this issue to our subscribers. Including this anthology with all new Irreantum subscriptions in November really helped us goose our subscriptions last month. And by the way, if you subscribed to Irreantum in November, your copy of Best of Mormonism is coming with your Irreantum issue. (If you were already a subscriber it should have already arrived on its own.) I’m happy to say that, after a number of frustrating production delays, both publications were mailed out yesterday. So keep an eye on your mailbox!

  2. Agreed.

    This kind of curation work is very important – anything that can cut through some of the noise is much appreciated and the act of anthologizing also tells us something about the ideological and aesthetic preferences of those involved. And I don’t mean that in a negative way — products that help define the field (or sectors of it) are very useful.

  3. I am very excited for my own copy to arrive and will start spreading the word to friends to let you know when they see anything stellar.

    I also think your decision to keep a three-year eligibility window in future editions is a great move, since the biggest struggle seems to be finding stuff that could have appeared anywhere. It’s good to keep the publication open to new finds of older material.

  4. I’m happy to see this happening, like the others who have commented here, and was excited to get my copy in the mail. (I got it at the beginning of December, but I’ve been very digitally slow this holiday season.) I particularly enjoyed the poetry—though (of course) I’d like to see more, but that’s likely for a different anthology—and it’s great to see what other writers are publishing outside of the Mormon market. It gives me a standard to pursue for myself.

    And while I’m happy to see such great writing coming out of the LDS tradition, I have two quibbles with the book’s formatting:

    1) The stanzas are messed up in Neil Aitken’s poem. The six-line stanzas in the middle of the poem should be three-line stanzas (as in Aitken’s collection). It was kind of disappointing to see the mix-up in the book’s opening piece.

    2) I’m wondering why there’s a page “left intentionally blank” right in the middle of the book. I know printing sometimes requires strange things of formatting, but I just thought the blank page was in a really strange place.

    Despite my quibbles, I have plans to include the book in a Mormon lit course I’m drafting and will propose to teach at Idaho State in the coming year. I think it provides a good sense of what’s going on in contemporary Mormon letters and I’m excited to share it students.

  5. .

    Tyler—

    Re: 2)

    That made me laugh out loud! It was part of the essay! Check it out again with that in mind. (That essay, by the way, was my favorite of the collection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s