Friday, May 6, 2011

Interview with Alexis E. Santi ~ Editor in Chief and Founder of Our Stories

Alexis E. Santi earned his MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Fiction where he smoked cheap cigarettes with Richard Bausch and listened intently to everything Alan Cheuse uttered. In 2005, he founded Our Stories because of his commitment to helping emerging writers find not only a home for their work but to legitimize the work of countless others who feel that their work would be otherwise ignored. Since graduating from Mason his own work has been published inWord Riot, In Posse Review, Dark Sky Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Cubista Magazine, Revista 22 and The Plum Ruby Review and a few other places here and there. He has masthead credits for over a dozen newspapers, newsletters and other publications. Previous to founding Our Stories, he served on the boards of Phoebe, So to Speak, United and THEL. In 2006 he was one of two Americans awarded the Romanian Cultural Institute's translation grant and lived in a castle for three months.

More can be found at www.alexissanti.com

Here is an interview with Alexis. Enjoy! ...

Q: Could you share something about your writing process? When is a draft, if ever, "done"?

My own process of writing entails usually a quick fast draft that came on in a rush of inspiration. It has actually been a long time since I worked on a new draft of a short story but that's how it occurs. It's similar to my process of writing poetry, whereas the piece was inspired or naturally evolves. The process of revision is another ball of wax entirely. I usually sit on a draft of a short story for a month or two and just let it sort of age properly in my mind. When I go back to revise the story I try to pretend that it is someone else's story entirely. That way I don't have to feel so attached to what I wrote. I ensure that the original is saved properly in a folder. I never overwrite my original drafts because I'm horribly paranoid about losing my material. I think a writer has to have a sort of obsessive self-interest that is hidden away inside of their work. While at the same time if something is lost then I write from the feeling of where my characters are in their draft. Writing from feeling is one of the many things I learned from my mentor Richard Bausch.

Working on novels is a completely different process. I tend to be much more methodical, planning ahead three or four chapters ahead of time and writing from a place where I'm in control to some extent of what is coming next. It isn't that I don't believe in first thought best thought it's just that in a novel when I write I'm deeply concerned about the revision process. The novel is a long hard war that takes the proper sort of provisioning. The first novel I wrote Song of the Midnight Rider required a complete revision over the past 24 months that took a lot out of me. You learn the hard way in novels; it's a hard brutal process. I'm in the middle of it now, working on novel number two. I want to say one more thing though; you should never, workshop a novel. I did this once when I was in grad school at Mason and that novel died by a thousand cuts from my peers and professors. Vonnegut said there are two types of novelists, bangers and peckers. The pecker does a few pages, revises those pages and rewrites as if the drafting process is an active process. I'm a banger. I hit a draft hard and then revise when I'm done.

To get to your question though, a draft is just a draft—the writing can always be different the only finality comes when you the writer decide to let it go never to return to it. Malamud used to have a draft he'd send to magazines, another draft would be sent when it would be accepted, another draft when it went into an anthology and another when another edition of the anthology came out.

Q: Having gone through hundreds of submissions over the years, could you say something what it is in a story that wows you into considering it for publication?

Gosh, that's a tough question. If you look at what we've published over the past six years you can see that the writing is strong and very different. To me, really, publication is an afterthought. Seriously. I know I'm an editor for a journal and I have to make decisions about what we publish but what separates us from other journals is not what we publish. I mean, I love everyone that I publish, I love all of those stories that you can see but to me what is that matters to me is the stories that we didn't publish.

I've talked about this a lot in other interviews or in my quarterly essays on the website and essentially what I believe is that the currently system of the literary journal market place is one based on 95-99% alienation and 1-5% satisfaction. So those stories that we've published over the years, they're the 5% of satisfaction or success that a writer feels. They pump their fist up high and say, I did it! Yes! And that's like totally cool but that seemingly ignores the fact that the entire rest of the race that just occurred. That's just the photofinish, right? I mean what about the other three hundred people that didn't make it to the finish line? What about those stories? Aren't they important? Don't they tell us something about those authors, don't they count for damn well something?

The goal of Our Stories has nothing to do with publication, in fact, the idea of creating a journal was REALLY an after thought in this venture. We began as a half baked idea for charge people money to edit their short stories, a concept that never got off the ground but only came about with the establishment of a good looking literary journal that promised to review every submission. I wanted to pass on the skills that I have developed in the past fifteen years of my life to writers who were circulating stories and just never knew how close they might be getting to the finish line. To respond from a place of trained and seasoned authority to help in some small way another draft come to light. That action honors the individual, it honors the artist and it helps further the craft of writing. The Buddhists say that to be in service to others is the greatest goal that a human being can have. At times in my life I have come to this service from a place of anger, foolishly raging against a system that I believe is inhumane and practices a sort of panzi scheme on their greatest admirers. As we are now crossing into our sixth year of actively running this humanistic literary submission system, I believe I am finally settling into a place where I hope only to be of service to others on some level and am letting go of my frustration. My only hope is that when a story comes to us that a writer realizes that we hope that they see a perhaps even greater benefit than getting published and that is ensuring that their draft was heard and that they have a chance at publishing it either with us or another journal in the future.

Q: Has Our Stories changed in ways you never could've anticipated when you first set out to give this unprecedented workshop service to the writing community?

Well, as I referred to earlier Our Stories itself was the afterthought. The idea was that we'd review your story and if there wasn't anything wrong with it we would consider it for publication at this sort of off shoot called Our Stories. The original name of the website was called Slush Stories but the original design of Our Stories journal was the same as it was. In fact, in our iPhone app the icon that we use was the original design of the journal. So that's the first thing that sticks out, at first I didn't know what I was doing.

The next thing that I didn't anticipate was that we'd start running workshops at Our Stories. I knew that we could edit drafts and pinpoint issues with a story but I didn't think we'd actually offer an online workshop, though it was very logical and seamless transition.

I think what has struck me though, through the years is that we haven't grown at the pace that I thought we would. Since there are no other journals like us that offer feedback to every submission that they receive I assumed that people would get it. That there'd be sort of a mass uprising of people out there saying, "You know what?! I send $25 dollars to other magazines and wait five months and all I get is a rejection!! Those guys at Our Stories have the right idea!!" But sadly, if I can just be really honest here, I haven't seen that sort of mass migration hit us. It has been very hard to ensure that we pay our staff and keep the lights on. We haven't solidified the connections between ourselves and other journals and only now today do I feel that we're getting some things right. For example, we're now showing people what they'll get with our OSTV features and using twitter and Facebook effectively. It's been a hard thing to manage the journal and be a marketing agent at the same time. I blame myself a lot in not getting Our Stories out there enough, in not stretching every single contact that we could. I just really hope the work load starts swinging the right way because I don't know how to keep running this journal, editing the stories that I can and keep up with my own editing, writing and personal life.

A huge surprise actually came recently. Ana Menendez, one of my favorite writers and one of the nicest human beings on the planet asked us to publish one of her short stories in this coming issue. It's a story about Jose Marti, the Cuban patriot and poet who is one of my idols—so this was like me getting to tick off two major life goals right at once, being solicited by a famous writer I love and getting to publish a story on a subject that I feel deeply about. Now, if I could just land that Mario Vargas Llosa interview I'd be set.

Oh, one more thing. The staff, you guys—you guys have surprised me. When I first started doing this six years ago I did it alone, in the dark with a few friends that I'd met at different parts of my life. All of my staff members I deeply respect, to the extent that I'm amazed at the work you've done, your willingness to chip in and fantastic work ethics. When you first started with us Justin I didn't know you from Adam and now I feel that you have become one of the clearest voices at Our Stories who has consistently risen to every challenge. Without all of you and I do mean all of you, Our Stories would have died a long time ago.

Q: What's next for you, your writing, and Our Stories?

Well, for Our Stories we just launched our iPhone application—please—download the app, it is free and please review it if you can. Next, we're going to start offering regional workshops where you work face-to-face with a group of students in your city. I'll be hosting workshops in Saint Louis twice a week and MM and MK will be in NYC and Steve and Want in Chi-town. We're hiring new staff members to begin offering workshops in other cities as well. I'm also bending a little bit on the OS Contest stuff, we're now taking contest submissions for general feedback at a reduced rate. So, like, right now there are two ways to submit to the contest: general feedback for $15 dollars an entry and $25 for page by page feedback. We will never EVER offer a contest where the writer does not receive feedback, if we violate that cardinal rule of Our Stories then you better believe I have lost my damn mind and all of you better start knocking my door and put me in a straight jacket.

As far as my own writing, well my first novel (the one I told you I'd been revising for 24 months) is now with six agents at the moment. My fingers are crossed but I'm trying not to get my hopes up. Getting an agent is VERY VERY hard to do, mostly because the market is so overly saturated with amazing writers and not enough cash to be moved around. Publishers are extremely picky these days and agents know that. That being said, I think there's an opening for Our Stories to well get into the publishing business. We just started offering novel workshops where we read the first 50 pages of your novel and then help you revise it. Considering that most agents will either only ask for the first 50 pages or stop reading after the first 50 pages we think this is a good thing. It is a logical next step that Our Stories will begin not only offering full manuscript reviews for a premium price but that Our Stories will begin publishing select titles of the literary short stories and novels. How we go about doing this has been of much debate in my mind but I know for sure that we will be launching some sort of first book competition this year and the winning manuscript will become an Our Stories title. There I go again, talking about my work takes me back to Our Stories. Sheesh.

Okay, in other news about my writing I am 130 pages into my second novel that is about a man who must return his father's body back to Cuba to bury. I still write poems for friends, essays and short stories. I have been horrible at circulating my own short stories and really need to get back on that. There's not enough time in every day and not sleeping doesn't sit well with me or my wife. Speaking of which, Leslie and I are going to Cambodia this summer for three weeks to do some research and documentary film work on the human trafficking situation in Cambodia. My wife is a musician, a brilliant piano player and songwriter whose work literally sends chills through me every time I hear her play. Her next album is all about the situation across the world where women are bought, sold and exploited. The songs she has written so far are deeply powerful and all money that is raised by the album will be going to an organization that combats these issues. It's one of those win-win-win situations that I believe helps set the world right.

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