A Conversation Between Three Room Editors

While the 41.2 editorial team was “taking a break” from sharing their aspirations for the upcoming issue with one another, they chatted about their favourite books and experiences working in the lit mags sphere. Submit your original essays, short stories, poems, and visual art to this open issue by Oct 31st, and you might be published alongside our commissioned author Katherena Vermette and a feature interview with Durga Chew-Bose.

Kayi Wong: What’s one thing you think most people don’t know about literary magazines?

Jessica Johns: How essential community support is to running a magazine. Everyone from contributors, to volunteers, to the one beer someone buys at an issue launch. Anyone can put a magazine together, but if the people aren’t around it building that hype, it doesn’t mean anything.

KW: That’s so true. Also, before I joined the Room collective, I certainly did not realize how much grant-writing was involved just to sustain the publication.

Geffen Semach: Absolutely. Before I became involved, I didn’t realize that this can be a second job that you do before, after, and sometimes during your day job/jobs. The collective of Room come together to crowdsource funds, market the magazine and events, and work early in the morning or late at night to produce this beautiful magazine. And most of them get paid very little if at all. It’s a labour of love.

JJ: Working for a literary magazine comes with a bunch of responsibilities. What do you think the biggest role editors play at a literary magazine?

GS: What’s cool about Room is that each issue is so different. Reading is subjective, and while we all read broadly and appreciate different genres and styles, we have different tastes. So, that means we need to pay extra attention and realize it is a responsibility to address our vision for the issue and whether we are accepting or rejecting a piece based on ourselves, vision as a whole, or a combination of the two.

JJ: Editors play so many roles, but I think the one with the biggest responsibility is honesty in what we’re publishing. We need to be publishing what we love. Not what or who is popular, not what we think CanLit wants to see. We need to genuinely love the piece, every time.

KW: Each literary magazine should have a clear mandate, and the editors need to make sure each issue abides by that as closely as possible. And at regular intervals, the priorities and the direction of the magazine should be reevaluated and reviewed. To piggyback on what Jess already said, as an editor I feel that we should be publishing what CanLit needs to see, not what it already wants—not that they are always mutually exclusive. Jess, since you’re the only one on the 41.2 editorial team who has worked for more than one lit mag, do you think that responsibility varies among them?

JJ: I don’t think the responsibility to honesty is any different, but as you said, each literary magazine has a clear mandate that the editors should abide by. And Room is one of the few mags that I believe gives a real priority to emerging and underrepresented writers, getting 90% of their content from unsolicited submissions and contest entries. That’s huge.

KW: As Room strives to be more inclusive in the voices and stories we publish, what has been challenging for you as a reader and editor?

JJ: As an Indigenous reader and editor, I’m always seeking out Indigenous writers. For my own enjoyment, to read their works and become more familiar with the work in their community. The challenge is wanting to do it all at once.

GS: I agree. Coming from a mixed background, a father who immigrated to Canada, inclusion is really important to me. I love being surprised when reading something unexpected or fresh—which I feel diversity in stories and voices is crucial for. The issue for me is perhaps expecting too much and not noticing the nuances in the settings I have read before.

KW: As an editor, I approach each editing opportunity with the goal to showcase an inclusive and diverse line-up of voices and experiences. However, something that I really need to work on, and am working on, is reading and exposing myself to more writers much older than me.

JJ: What do you hope to see in the future of literary magazines? Are there particular trends you see emerging that you like or don't like?

KW: Well, I certainly don’t like the “trend” of lit mags folding! One thing I can appreciate, though, is how lit mags are now less reluctant to be political—which I feel was the case before as if poetry and politics have barely any relationship with one another.

GS: Yes. The ways we are experiencing the world right now are making their way into the stories we are sharing, and that’s really cool. Sharing information and experiences is a big part of the world we live in, which is now coming to integrate different media together. Room just started a podcast, and I would love to see more opportunities for both discussion of lit mags and accessibility to lit mag stories. We have e-books and audiobooks, why not other forms of lit mags? That would definitely be a future I’d like to see.

JJ: I really want to see some more experimental and genre-bending work. I want to see writing that talks to other art forms, whether it’s performance art or music. Writing can get really cool and exciting and I think we’re taught that certain styles are what get published, so people stick to them, but I’d like to see that shift.

KW: Room’s Short Form Contest reopened again this month, and genre-ambiguous works are accepted and encouraged! Okay, end of Room promotion. Working as a younger writer and/or editor, do you ever feel like you’re not taken seriously because of your age or what’s perceived to be your age?

JJ: Yes. I feel this in other areas of my life as well, and it can be frustrating.

KW: It definitely happens in more than one aspect of our lives, and it’s frustrating especially when you’re trying to get your professional life together. However, working at Room and corresponding with our contributors, that kind of condescending and disrespectful experiences has actually been minimal.

GS: I agree with both of you. It is definitely frustrating and I do feel it often in many places in my life. We are all working hard to develop our experience and world every day. Regarding age and experience, how do you feel about the idea of being a gatekeeper while reading submissions as an editor?

JJ: I think it’s important to have people of varying ages and “experiences” in these roles, as we’re (hopefully) then responding to the submissions in a different, more rounded way.

KW: I experience a lot of self-doubt and uneasiness when I’m editing, because literary magazines are often the first publication for many emerging writers—and that’s a whole load of responsibility (and power). So I can really appreciate that Room employs a rotating editorial structure, so no singular voice or taste steers the magazine.

GS: Like both of you mentioned, the fact that we try to have as many people as possible reading submissions is very important to the notion of being a “gatekeeper”. We all do this because we love it and we think it’s worthwhile, so at least speaking for myself, I take it very seriously. It can be hard when you read something that is so close to your own expectations for publication. However, I try to read with an open mind and pay attention to what is my taste and what is just great writing, which we receive a lot of.

KW: Let’s talk books! What’s the most underrated book you love?

GS: So tough! One of my favourite books of all time is Laughter in the Dark, written by Vladimir Nabokov. When I mention this book, most people give me a blank stare until I say Lolita. If you liked Lolita, you’ll like Laughter in the Dark.

JJ: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. Most people know David Mitchell for Cloud Atlas, a book that was made into a movie. Neither of which I’ve seen or read. Black Swan Green is one of his earlier works, and no one seems to know about it. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy. It deals with toxic masculinity, bullying, formative years in growing up, and complicated friendship in a really beautiful way.

KW: I’ve already talked about this on Room’s blog, and it’s Anne Fadiman’s At Large and At Small. Fadiman, who is a CNF professor at Yale, writes these personal essays about the things she’s occupied with, things that keep her up at night—most of which would be deemed unworthy of critical scrutiny by most. I’m always attracted to non-fiction writing—not exclusively—that can compel me to care about things I didn’t before. Her near-obsessive fervor for these subject matters is completely infectious and if reading this book doesn’t make you care about your everyday life more, I don’t know what will. Have you ever read anything that changed the way you read, write, or edit, not in that gradual and nebulous way, but in a way that was perceptible?

GS: Yes to all, although it’s a boring answer. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. The more I’ve learned about rhetoric, the better I’ve understood communication whether oral or written. It has made me appreciate what goes into what I’m reading, as well as aided me in my own creative and professional writing for the better. Take advantage of what we know about communicating, use it to your advantage, and break the rules if you think it’s the right thing to do.

JJ: Reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Islands of Decolonial Love and This Accident of Being Lost (in quick succession) and doing my interview with her has seriously altered the way I think about editing Indigenous writers. We’ve been taught to edit all writers in the same way, regardless of writing or storytelling practices of their particular culture or background, and I think that’s something we need to reconsider and give attention to.

KW: I had a similar experience reading Junot Díaz’s work, which changed the way I approach submissions with non-English words. I’m sure he’s not the first one to challenge these prescriptive rules around the English language, but he was the first writer I came across that did it to disrupt the notion of what’s considered foreign in a publishing world that’s driven by whiteness. Also, I’m certainly no poet, but I found myself writing these professional emails that sounded almost lyrical during the two weeks I was reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.

Jessica Johns is a writer of Cree ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation. She is the Executive Editor of Promotions for PRISM international and is currently working as part of the Growing Room 2018 committee for Room Magazine living and working on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Geffen Semach has been working as a copywriter and social media coordinator in the digital marketing industry for the last three years after a five-year stint across the country in Halifax. She is also an assistant editor for the Nabokov Online Journal, and has been involved with Room’s editorial board since 2016. Geffen has just returned from a trip across the pond where she completed the Columbia Publishing Course at Oxford University, and will soon be returning to London to continue working with books in the UK.

Kayi Wong has been a Roomie for close to four years, during which she has worked as the contest coordinator, marketing and fundraising coordinator for the Making Room fundraising campaign, the co-editor of the Food issue, and has interviewed some of her favourite authors. When she's not working as a publishing assistant, Kayi coordinates Room's social media and is working as part of the Growing Room 2018 committee on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations.

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—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

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