I’m really excited to be interviewing Melanie Bishop from Alligator Juniper today. Alligator Juniper was one of the first places to publish my writing. In 2002, I entered their annual literary contest with a short story. I didn’t win but they published the story, and I was thrilled when I saw my contributor copies of the gorgeous issue arrived in my mailbox. In 2003, my essay “Lessons from the School of Sink or Swim” about my stepfather was published in Alligator Juniper as the Creative Nonfiction winner, the spot held in the magazine’s 2013 issue by Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat participant Natalie Singer‘s piece “How to Be Analog.”
Bonus to retreat participants: Alligator Juniper has generously donated a copy of their last issue for each retreat goer. So you’ll soon get a chance to see for yourself what a beautiful magazine it is. Thank you, Alligator Juniper!
Founding Editor of Alligator Juniper, Bishop currently holds the position of Fiction Editor and Co-Editor of Creative Nonfiction there.
NESTOR: Tell us about the upcoming issue of Alligator Juniper. What are you excited about?
BISHOP: Honestly, I’m excited about all of the work that’s seeing print in this year’s issue. It was a robust year for submissions in every genre and there’s a lot of range in the stories, essays, poems that made it to the top of their respective piles. As you know, Theo, one of your former students, Natalie Singer, took the prize in Creative Nonfiction this year with her essay, “How to Be Analog.” A favorite line of mine: “You learn the secrets of your parents’ marriage slowly, the truth unfolding to you like the disassembly of an intricate paper crane.” I think what I admire most about Singer’s essay is its economy.
Two of the essays we’re publishing—“Orphan” by Martha Schulman and “Frank’s Buick” by David G. Pace, examine elements of family and loss and access to the departed, but from opposite ends of an emotional spectrum. Pace’s essay is almost playful next to the gravity of Schulman’s. Pace uses a shared automobile to explore a relationship between two men who barely knew each other—a son-in-law and father-in-law. Schulman’s “Orphan” is about as raw as an essay about loss can be. On the topic of her mother’s illness and death, this essay’s more memorable lines chart a progression of degrees of disappointment and devastation. From page 4 of her manuscript: “It is amazing the stake other people have in someone else’s willingness to believe in cures.” From page 5: “It’s hard to think things could’ve been more horrible.” From page 6: “We will not rise to the occasion and pull together like the families in the books. We already are together. It just doesn’t look like the illustrations.” From page 7: “Where is the self-help book called Grieve Here Now?” And finally, from page 10: “Being an orphan is like being one or two lifted veils closer to the tragedy at the core of the world.” Devastating and profound.
And then for something completely different, we have an essay by Judith Barrington, “Consciousness,” which looks at the early stages of the Women’s Movement in Britain. We read, discussed and selected all the nonfiction in October of last year, and it was particularly interesting to be reading about the history of women’s rights, while at the same time facing the possibility of a presidential candidate who would reverse Roe vs. Wade. With the exception of myself, Poetry Editor Sheila Sanderson, and one member of the student staff, everyone in on that discussion had been born after 1985, a dozen years into legalized abortion. Barrington’s essay helped us to see how far we’d come, and how much we stood to lose.
I’ve gone on too long about the nonfiction. I’m every bit as excited about the fiction in the upcoming issue, but I know you have more questions for me. I’ll just say my personal favorites are the prizewinning story, “Hero” by Esther Welsh, “Sanctuary” by Sara Dupree, and “Palindromes” by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz. Beautiful, frightening, memorable stories, and we are honored to feature them in our pages.
NESTOR: What’s the history of the magazine? When did it start? How long have you been involved?
BISHOP: As a graduate student at University of Arizona in Tucson, I had the opportunity to work on the staff of Sonora Review. I went from being someone who opened the mail to being on fiction staff to being Fiction Editor. I loved the work and the interesting way it enlarged our lives as writers in the program. On one day, you might be struggling to finish a story for workshop, feeling low and insecure and absent of talent, and on the next day, wearing the hat of editor, you’d pass quick judgement on the stories of writers who sent work to the magazine, and you learned to articulate why you found something publishable or not. Riveting or not. Moving or not. Speaking about these stories among classmates was a completely different type of discussion than when we were workshopping each other’s fiction. We were freer to say what we thought, without fear of hurting feelings. Different layers of the same game and all very informative.
When I started teaching at Prescott College in 1991, I very much missed the contact with a literary magazine, and felt it was something we needed to provide for our undergraduates in creative writing. I found myself helping students to set up internships with literary magazines, (one of them with Sonora Review) so they could get that experience. Within a couple of years, I proposed to the college that we start our own magazine, and utilize our upper-division students as staff, thereby providing them with a much-needed, in-house internship. This was approved in 1994, and we started the Literary Journal Practicum class that fall, and put out our premiere issue in 1995.
Before I could put out a call for submissions, I knew we needed a name. Alligator Juniper was the tree I’d become most enamored of since moving to the southwest, so distinctive was its bark and so easy to recognize. I found the two words together to connote something layered and complex, and to also be, when spoken, melodic to the ear. All those syllables, seemingly metered. And then a more practical concern helped me confirm this choice for our magazine’s title: I realized that when placing ads in Poets & Writers, this title would put us close to the top of any alphabetical list. That first year, we only put a call out for fiction and poetry, and we only got about 50 submissions per category. Now we typically get triple or quadruple that amount.
It’s definitely exciting to have been involved so long, from the magazine’s inception. To see you take the nonfiction prize one year with “Lessons from the School of Sink or Swim,” and then to see, years later, one of your former students—Natalie Singer—winning the same prize.
NESTOR: What’s the role of students at the magazine?
BISHOP: We have several practicum courses in the Arts & Letters Program at Prescott College—courses designed for learning by doing. Literary Journal Practicum is one of these. To register for the course, students must have background or coursework in creative writing and literature. Typically a student would take this class in the beginning of the junior year, and often students will take it again in fall of the senior year. They tend to enjoy the work and often find they want to do more of it.
We spend the first 4 to 5 weeks going through all the creative nonfiction together—students, myself and Sheila Sanderson, co-editor. We do all the reading in the Alligator Juniper office, where we have a bunch of couches and chairs and never any shortage of files to review. Every week, we discuss between 20 and 40 files, determining if they should be rejected, accepted, or kept for further consideration. The files that are rejected get assigned to someone on staff who will write a thoughtful, specific rejection letter. In most cases, we’re able to have the person who appreciated the piece the most be the one to write the rejection letter. We are becoming known for our rejection letters—they are kind, careful, specific, and, most of all, encouraging. Each year we get dozens of sincere thank you notes for our rejection letters. These make us feel good. We’re all writers ourselves, and know how hard it is to get published, and to keep on writing when faced with rejection. We like to tell writers at least one thing we loved in their story or essay, and give them at least one concrete suggestion for revising toward improvement. It was particularly gratifying when one writer whose work we rejected wrote to us, saying that he’d taken our suggestions for revision to heart, incorporated the suggestions of staff member Chris Zaccone, submitted the new improved story to a different contest, and won first place! The writer’s name was Lones Seiber.
Once we’ve narrowed down the list of files under consideration to about a dozen finalists, we reread those, and then begin the difficult process of deciding on the small handful we will publish, and the one piece that will get the $1000 prize. When the nonfiction decisions are behind us, we divide the students into two separate staffs, based on the genre with which they have the most experience, and Sheila leads the poetry staff and I lead the fiction staff and we spend the rest of the semester selecting the best work in those genres. It usually takes us till the very last minute of the last class of the semester to come to all these difficult decisions and sometimes we stay late, ordering pizza, so that we can do the process justice. Long after the last day of the semester, we’re all still showing up in the office, writing our personal rejection letters and stuffing them into SASEs. There’s a camaraderie in this course that makes students want to take it again. We work so hard, such long hours, that sometimes we become semi-delirious. And we crack each other up.
I will say I absolutely adore working with students on the magazine. They learn so much about writing in the Literary Journal Practicum, even though it’s a class in which they do not do their own writing at all. They learn what is cliché; they learn what they like and why they like it. They begin to articulate a personal aesthetic, and they leave the class stronger writers.
NESTOR: What’s the relationship between the contest and the magazine? Does all the content for the magazine come from the entries?
BISHOP: Sponsoring a contest every year is the way we generate more than half of our operating budget each year. Entry fees allow us to pay the prizewinners and meet the rising expenses for putting out a print journal. The college provides us with a small budget and we also apply for grants. We’ve received several grants over the years from Arizona Commission on the Arts, and an early seed grant from Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. Since we are an annual, the contest every fall is the only way to submit work to our journal. The only work to appear in our pages that is not associated with the contest entries would be the occasional special sections designed and carried out by various managing editors. Two former managing editors, Jeff Fearnside and Rachel Yoder, each edited special sections. Fearnside did an international section and Yoder did one on genre blur. Currently, and another thing that excites me about this upcoming issue, Managing Editor Skye Anicca is putting together a special section of work she solicited. No spoilers! Check out the 2013 issue to see what her section explores.
NESTOR: How does working with Alligator Juniper fit into your life as a writer?
BISHOP: I’ve often said that sometimes I enjoy discovering talent more than I enjoy exercising my own. And the main places I discover talent are in my classroom and through work submitted to the magazine. I love nurturing talent in my classes, and, through the magazine, being able to bring quality literature to print. It’s enormously satisfying. Writing, as we all know, is not always as reliably fun or successful. Lately, though, after 21 years of devoting myself mostly to teaching and being an editor, I’ve felt my desires shift more toward my own work—not just generating new work, but also marketing existing books. I have a story “Trina Comes Home,” in the current issue of Potomac Review, a memoir, Some Glad Morning, coming out later this year from www.outpost19.com , and the first book in a young adult series, My So-Called Ruined Life, coming out in January of 2014 from Torrey House Press. You can see the cover of the YA novel on my website.
A story cycle, Home for Wayward Girls, has been a finalist five times in the last three years: The Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, the University of Iowa Press Short Fiction Awards, the Doris Bakwin Award, the Tartt Fiction Award, and Hidden River‘s Eludia Award. I’m hopeful that book will eventually see print. I’ve gone halftime at Prescott College and am spending January through August of each year with my husband on the Monterey Peninsula, where he is a Career and Academic Advisor at Monterey Institute of International Studies. I’m teaching a memoir class in Carmel, doing freelance work, designing a 4-day writing retreat here in May, and doing my own writing. Next up is some final revisions on the memoir, and then Book Two of the Tate McCoy series (young adult). I’m also eager to finish a book of novellas started last year, and hope to eventually write a textbook on teaching memoir in the college classroom.
Thanks so much for the chance to talk about all this, and have fun at the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat! Looks like such a great event.
NESTOR: Thanks, Melanie!
[ Melanie Bishop is hosting a retreat, Write and Play in Carmel-by-the Sea, May 19th through 23rd, 2013. More info: www.vagabondshouseinn.com ]