Get to know PN's managing editors.
Note from Editor-in-Chief Jennifer A. Howard: Sometimes, I can be decisive. I say yes or no to short-shorts quickly, I don’t linger over which cereal to pour into my bowl in the morning, I impulse-shop snowboots like it’s my job. But choosing a new managing editor for Passages North last spring took me weeks. Knowing both Matt Weinkam and Robin McCarthy were interested in the position was like having Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck on my fantasy football roster and getting to start only one. That just doesn’t happen: you’ll never have both those guys on your team, and if somehow you do, you cannot bench either of them. Thankfully, Matt and Robin and I figured out how we could all three work together for the next two years. (They explain the system below.) Here, they interview each other, and while they never ask “How lucky is Jen to have us on her team?” know that my answer to that one would be “oh so very lucky.”
I. “The weird but exciting thing”
Robin:Do you want to start by explaining to people how this whole co-managing editor scenario at Passages North is going to play out for the next couple semesters?
Matt: Sure. So for the next two years you and I will both be sharing the responsibilities of managing editor, meaning we will both be answering emails, contacting authors, planning readings and events, and overall making sure the journal runs smoothly. We’ll both be working on the journal every semester, but we’ll alternate who’s in charge of day-to-day operations each semester.
Robin: Right, the idea being that one of us can oversee general managing editor responsibilities, but there’s a backup person for support and to head up some “extra” tasks that might otherwise languish.
Matt:This semester, you are teaching and I am the primary managing editor for Passages; next semester I will be teaching and you will hold this position. And so on.
Robin:It seems like a good way to get more done in the same amount of time. Also, we have different strengths, and it’s really nice to be able to rely on someone else for the tasks at which they are skilled and I am not. Also, we both really love talking about writing, so it is, at its heart, an exceptionally fun job for both of us. I’m excited about the process ahead.
Matt:You grew up in Maine and moved here to Upper Peninsula Michigan for graduate school. In between you’ve lived everywhere from small town Ohio to Washington DC (not to mention living on a boat for three years). Can you talk a bit about how place has influenced your writing and what you’ve learned from planting roots in such different parts of the country?
Robin: Place is always the first thing I look for, in my own writing and in what I read. If I’m trying to write something and I want it to feel different from other stuff I write, I uproot it from its place, but I always have a clear sense of where we are in my head, even if it doesn’t hit the page. But I’ve lived in places that are really about their regional identity, a big part of the way I see and understand people is by where they are from and how they feel about it. For me, Maine is home. I grew up there and left because that’s what people there do, but I went back, and I left for graduate school because this experience is important to me, but now that I’m gone I’ll spend the next few years working my way back home. I’m glad I know other places, but that’s the place I understand, and where I feel understood. There’s a lot of regional literature that comes out of New England, I was raised with it, and it’s hard for me to separate the writing associated with home from home. I like that, the way reality and fiction have merged in my memory, and it’s impossible not to feel like my writing his heavily influenced by all those voices coming out of Maine.
What about you? We’ve talked in the past about being from Ohio, and Ohio is maybe the place I’ve lived where it’s toughest to hit on what characterizes Ohio. You’re from Ohio, but you’ve also lived in China; where are your roots? Are those places you return to in writing or in real life?
Matt: It is tough to characterize Ohio, or at least it is hard for me. Some of our most famous authors make place the center of their fiction—Sherwood Anderson, Toni Morrison, Donald Ray Pollock, even William H. Gass—but Ohio isn’t as geographically or culturally distinct as Maine so the themes tend to be universalized rather than particularized.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never been drawn to write about place. Even after I returned from living for a year in China I continued setting my stories in unnamed nowhere towns. It’s not that I don’t love place-based writing, it’s just never been at the forefront of my thinking when I approach a story. I love returning to Cincinnati for the holidays and dream of living in China again but more often I’m looking ahead instead of back, planing imaginary trips to India or Argentina or the south of Spain. I like my reading to take me to places too but I’m just as content to be grounded in new language or form.
Robin: I think this is a big part of what I like about examining contemporary literature, the way that stories rooted in place, character, thought, etc. all exist at once and come at us from different voices. I have so much admiration for writers whose work is a meditation on thought, but I don’t write like that. I think a big part of writing well is being at peace with the element(s) that define(s) you. I’d much prefer to look at ten novels published this year that all take a different approach to what it means to be a story than read ten place-based novels. This is maybe not relevant anymore. I think I’m saying that I like that writers are different.
Matt: You’re right, we can’t change what we’re drawn to and for the most part we’re stuck with the skills we have. I’ve always remembered this David Means quote where he talks about how style is a maneuver around what we can’t do. I can’t do place so I try and make up for it by building surreal worlds for my characters to bounce around in.
Robin:You and I have talked about ourselves as readers; how we grew into the kinds of readers we are and what work influenced that development. How do you describe yourself as a reader, and how important is staying current with contemporary literature to you? Do you think lit mags play a role in your sense of what to read?
Matt: It’s a lot of fun to look back on your reading path and see what writers and books got you there. What I find most fascinating is the way stories and novels can change you without you even being aware. For example, I can remember being haunted by the ending of “The School” by Barthelme before I had any concept of who he was or what I was looking at. Same with “The Devil is a Busy Man” by Wallace where the narrator laments his inability to be selflessly kind towards another person. I look back on those stories now and see the styles and themes that characterize my reading interests—fabulism, dark humor, self-consciousness, explicit engagement with morality—but the first time I read them I just thought, what is this weird but exciting thing?
And I guess that’s what I’m looking for now when I read: the weird but exciting thing. It’s there in books like Speedboat, U.S.!, The Mezzanine, All Souls, Remainder, Museum of the Weird, Letters to Wendy’s, Bluets, About a Mountain, and Europeana. But in general that combination isn’t easy to find or to create. That’s why keeping up with contemporary literature is so important to me and—you’re right again—literary journals are at the forefront of that. When I flip through Conjunctions or Artifice or Noon, when I upload DIAGRAM or PANK or Smokelong each month, I know there will be pieces that will make me feel something but challenge my idea of what a story can or should be as well. That kind of stuff excites me and sends me back to the desk to write.
How about you? What reading path led you to the writer you are today? Are there touchstone texts or particular authors that form the McCarthy canon? And how would you say your tastes have changed over the years?
Robin:A large part of my decision to go to graduate school was needing smart people to tell me what to read for a while. I didn’t study English as an undergraduate, and I was out of academia for almost ten years before returning for my MFA. So I read what NPR and Terry Gross told me to, and I followed along with some online book clubs. I read a lot of popular fiction and a lot of John Steinbeck. The Best American series became really important; I read those anthologies more than journals, as well as Lee Gutkind’s Best Creative Nonfiction volumes. I worked in an independent book store for a while and that gave me a lot of access to certain kinds of markets, which directed my reading for a long time.
My interests are more diverse now, I have more access to more writers and publishers, more opinions and more people talking about reading than I did earlier in my writing life. I read more experimental stuff because that’s the flavor of the writing program I’m in. I’m happy to get pushed in that direction, the challenge is helpful and I think it makes me a more open reader. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t thumb through Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love sometimes, or reread short stories by Edward P. Jones or Mona Simpson and feel renewed and comforted by the emotional reach of traditional narrative.
As far as benchmark names that sum up what I like, I think Cheryl Strayed’s Dear Sugar essays are their own religion. Ann Patchett. Jessamyn Ward. Roxane Gay. John Casey. Elizabeth Strout. Anthony Doerr. Joy Williams. I’m starting a long-term reader relationship with Alissa Nutting, I think. The home team is more than solid, and Maine-based writers like Monica Wood, Meredith Hall, Sarah Braunstein, Ron Currie, Jr. and Lily King have helped significantly with setting my compass.
II. “Violent stages of maturation”
Robin:Building that list really highlights a before and after for me; life outside academia and within it. You’ve been at this a lot longer than I have (academia, I mean). Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to step out of teaching for a few semesters to head up Passages North? Do you miss your time in the classroom? How does instructing undergrad classes fuel your own craft?
Matt: Great questions. You mentioned earlier the difficulty of being at peace with the elements that define you as a writer. I think one of the elements I struggle most with accepting is my own enthusiasm for academia and for being in the college classroom. You’re not supposed to like school. You’re especially not supposed to like ivory tower intellectual bullshit. But damn if I don’t love being in a place where we get to read high-brow literature and talk about unconventional syntax and seriously discuss hetero-patriarchal power structures without apologizing for it. That’s kind of my dream.
Being out of the classroom this semester I certainly don’t miss grading but I do miss engaging with students about their reading and writing. I love working through a story or essay draft with an interested writer. I love bringing in readings that challenge us and working through our understanding of them as a class. Also, I can get so caught up in the abstractions of lit theory or the wackadoo constraints of Oulipo writers that a sea of twenty some skeptical faces becomes a useful check on my sanity. So there’s that too.
Can you talk about your own experience with teaching? I know initially you were skeptical but you seem to have taken a liking to it in the last year or so. Will you miss teaching during your time managing Passages North or are you looking forward to the break to concentrate on writing and editing?
Robin: I came to graduate school as a writer more than a teacher, but you invest yourself in your surroundings and teaching feels rewarding and some days I feel good at it. Workshopping writing in progress is just about my favorite thing, whether it’s in the comp class I teach or a graduate workshop or just me and the Passages Submittable queue. There’s something I love about asking where the writer is trying to go and brainstorming how to best close the gap between where the work is and where it’s headed. There are lots of ways to do that, and I’m looking forward to a few semesters of doing it without grading or the part of teaching that devolves into behavior management. But I’m sort of fascinated by the age group; college students are at a really interesting time in their lives, and so much of their learning is born from complete and utter chaos. I’ll miss the proximity to violent stages of maturation that teaching provides.
Matt:We’ve talked a lot about process in the last year together and I’m curious to know more about your own daily routine and how you formed it. You have a reputation around the department for being one of the most dedicated and tireless workers—what brought you to that place? Were you always a habitual writer or were there years of procrastination and insecurity?
Robin: “Procrastination and insecurity” is an interesting way of wording the question. I have always, always, always suffered insecurity. I am not the kind of writer I want to be, and all my hard work is bred from that insecurity. Procrastination is certainly there, too, but it’s less of a demon than self-doubt for me.
But in terms of your question about process, I write in the morning for a set amount of time or word count every day that it’s reasonable. I used to make myself get dressed before I wrote, I had to write in real pants, but I don’t do that anymore, I try to be more gentle with myself. But I’m not going to lie; you hear the promise of ‘time and space to write” when you’re applying for MFAs and that sounds fantastic, but I have to fight for my time much harder in school than I ever did before. And, to be clear, 85% of the time, that fighting is with myself. I limit Facebook and email with programs like Freedom and StayFocusd, and I schedule my time with friends and family. I privilege creative work over coursework. Mine is a rigid approach but rigidity has always worked well for me. And still, some of the best work comes when life forces me to disrupt that schedule.
How that process developed isn’t something I’ve thought about before. I guess, about eight years ago, I was wicked depressed. I had a corporate job and my life felt pretty empty of meaningful activity. So I set up lists of things I wanted in my days, things I could control like writing and reading and exercise and knitting and music. If I practiced each of those things every day, I didn’t feel so crushed by the missing things that I couldn’t control. I got some therapy, too, I’d hate for people to think productivity cured my heart; it didn’t. But somewhere in the process of getting happier, I established a set of successful habits that have stuck.
Okay. Next. I’ve been waiting a year to ask this question, and I’m pretty excited about it: You write about technology almost exclusively right now. You have, perhaps, the most focused and consistent obsession of any writer I know personally. How did that interest develop, and what sorts of things feed into your well of material? And seriously, how long have you been doing this amazing thing?
Matt: Yeesh. This is yet another element that defines my writing that I’m trying to come to terms with. What’s strange is I have only been writing about technology since I arrived at Northern little over a year ago. Before that I was still obsessed with form and metafiction and artifice and reality but I only wrote a single story where technology played a role at all. So this is still a relatively new phenomenon for me but one that has kind of taken over everything I write now.
As for origins, sometime during my stay in China I began to take an interest in technology criticism, perhaps because I was so fascinated by China’s great firewall and the methods they use to sensor and contain Chinese citizens online. Books like You are Not a Gadget and Consent of the Networked in particular, along with writing by extreme skeptics like Evgeny Morozov, forced me to rethink my relationship to/obsession with the internet. I could go on about this forever but, long story short, I found technology to be an interesting place to wrestle with everything from government surveillance to social media self-consciousness, drone warfare to online love affairs, corporate hegemony to the question of free will and human nature. Big stuff.
I’m not a luddite or a technophobe, nor do I think we’re headed for post-apocalyptic dystopia. Frankly I think the “is technology good or bad” question isn’t very interesting or helpful. I just sense a lot of anxiety out there in the culture about what all this stuff is doing to us. Hell, I feel a lot of anxiety about it most days in my own life. I mean, I just got a smartphone for the first time and it’s something of a mind warp. The first thing it asked me was if I wanted it to track my location at all times. All I want to do in my writing is engage with that anxiety and see how technology holds up a black glassy mirror to our human nature.
III. “The flashy stuff”
Matt: You’re currently working on a novel but I know you’ve spent most of the last decade in the world of nonfiction. Can you talk about your experience working in each genre and what it has been like to dive into a book-length fiction project after spending so long in the memoir and travel writing arenas?
Robin: This is a great question. It’s hard? It’s hard because all my models and inputs were one thing and then they became another thing. Sort of. It’s all just stories and trying to connect with people through language. I was writing a lot of nonfiction because that was a crack I could pry open, but I had so much admiration for fiction writers and I wanted to be better at it. So I started writing some fiction and studying fiction more closely. But the hardest part is probably that nonfiction was a first person endeavor for me, and I have a hard time writing first person fiction. The first person feels like the hallowed land of memoir to me, I don’t adopt it easily in fiction.
But man, making things up is the best! And writing feels a lot more satisfying to me when the truth isn’t confined by the facts. Doing both has made my fiction look more like my life, and allowed me to take more liberties with the truth in nonfiction.
Matt: Interesting. How tied to “true facts” do you feel at this point? Have you fully converted to the David Shields/John D’Agata camp of nonfiction? Is everything artifice?
Robin: Does artifice have to mean coy? It’s all manipulation, a way of driving toward the truth, and it’s carefully constructed, no matter how it’s presented. But I don’t think that’s a trick, I think that’s the tool at the storyteller’s disposal, all the way back to Aristotle. Shields and D’Agata don’t make me as angry as I think they make some people, and I’m really at ease with nonfiction that is emotionally true, or true in memory, even though I might, personally, prefer to create autobiographical fiction. “Fiction” and “nonfiction” strike me as terms that are useful in marketing, but not really for writing, at least not for me right now. Facts are super useful, though, and sometimes throwing them out the window is what saves a story.
You started off this semester with a trip to the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium and you’re about to lead a workshop on “The Cinematography of Sentences” at Bowling Green’s Winter Wheat Festival of Writing. How does film inform your reading and writing brain? Are there other art forms that are as closely tied to language for you as film is? Is there crossover in your film interests and writing interests?
Matt: I think film informs every person’s reading and writing brain. I’m sure you’ve noticed but students in introductory writing classes don’t tell stories based on the books they’ve read, they tell stories based on the movies and TV shows they’ve seen. The language, the structure and shape, the characters and descriptions and story beats all come from film and television because they are the culturally dominant storytelling medium of our time. We can’t help but think in that language. Any of us. It’s too deep in our bones. What we can do, what I’ve been trying to think more about how to do myself, is acknowledge that influence and make it work for us.
For one thing, I’m not sure we spend enough time talking about what fiction can do that film can’t. There’s interiority and sensory detail and certain structural moves we have that film doesn’t. Yes. But we also have the benefit of a reader co-creating the story with us, and that’s an awesome tool.
But besides the differences there are always the ways film and fiction can inspire each other. When I watch movies now I like to find things I can steal and try to translate into writing: What is the writing equivalent of a long tracking shot or a shaky hand-held camera? How could you experiment with short sentences in the same way a director might experiment with quick cuts? Can you manipulate syntax and acoustics differently by thinking about how filmmakers use music and sound? Of course it’s always going to be different and lots of these little exercises might fail but as a whole I think it is better to engage with TV and film influence than it is to run from it.
Robin: That’s kind of fascinating to me, because I am definitely in the “run from it” school, but completely thoughtlessly, and when I think about it more, I think there’s a lot of cinematic influence in how I build a scene that I haven’t really investigated thoroughly. But I think we’re trying to wrap up here, right? Now that you’re a few months into working with Passages, what do you hope to see in the coming semesters?
Matt: We’ve got a number of exciting things on the way. For one we’ve been planning more events and readings. Last month, for instance, we co-hosted an outdoor reading with Midwestern Gothic that took place at Lakenenland, a one-of-a-kind junkyard sculpture park here in Marquette (rated one of the top attractions in the Upper Peninsula). You should really check out the photos if you haven’t seen or heard of it before.
Robin: And it was really cold, but fun, and it was exciting to have Passages North contributors from far away come to this strange part of the world we run a lit mag out of.
Matt:We’re also planning an off-site reading at AWP in Minneapolis featuring some of the innovative nonfiction and hybrid authors we’ve published in the past so folks should stay tuned for more details about that.
Besides events and readings we’re also looking to stretch ourselves in terms of what the journal can do in print. Our upcoming 2015 issue features full-color collage artwork by experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin. There are also a number of formally adventurous hybrid pieces in that issue that have challenged our layout editor (also fiction editor), Tim Johnston, in terms of what they’re doing on the page. That’s my favorite—publishing something so new and unusual it gives Tim a headache. And there is at least one project coming down the pipe that would require some—how should I say?—unorthodox printing techniques which I’m really excited about.
But that’s just the flashy stuff. There are plenty of changes around the office too.
Robin: Like an enthusiastic new group of readers coming in through the English grad programs at NMU, who are kind of blowing us away with their skilled reading. We’re hoping to get them set up with more book reviews, interviews, and publishing of their favorites from the submissions queue on our website. Speaking of submissions, we’ve had an uptick in numbers, which is humbling and exciting. We’ve been maintaining a really quick turn-around time so far, which we’re proud of and hoping to maintain. And we’re working on a new logo! People should keep an eye out for its unveiling sometime...later. But mostly, the big thing is that we are reading a lot of incredible writing and discussing it with sharp minds.