andrea bennett spoke with Room’s Rachel Thompson about pitching non-fiction to Maisonneuve, the evolution of her writing career, what she likes to read, and the benefits of literary gender counts.
andrea bennett is a National Magazine award-winning writer whose work has been published by The Atlantic, The Walrus, The Globe & Mail, Maisonneuve, Hazlitt, Vice, Geist, Adbusters, This Magazine, and others. She is an associate editor at Maisonneuve, a columnist at This Magazine, and the designer for PRISM. In the past she’s spent time as an editor on the mastheads of Adbusters, This, PRISM, Geist and Canadian Women in Literary Arts (CWILA). Originally from Hamilton, she’s currently living in Montreal. She chatted with us on the phone and then followed up by email, so her answers below include her emphases and smileys.
Although you do publish poetry and fiction, you only accept submissions for creative non-fiction at Maisonneuve, and usually ask for pitches before receiving the work. What are you looking for in CNF?
We publish investigative journalism, profiles, essays, personal essays, memoir, comment, and long reviews of contemporary writing, art, theatre and music. We also occasionally publish conversations about a topic (like Scaachi Koul and Naomi Skwarna’s “When Living Was Easy,” from our Fall 2015 issue), and oral histories.
What do you look for in a query?
We look for two things, broadly speaking: a story that draws us in, and a pitch that demonstrates the writer’s ability to tell the story. So the pitch should be fleshed out—the writer should already have done some research; they should know the key characters in the story, and the general themes and tensions, and they should communicate that information to us clearly.
If you could give advice to people before they submit, what would you say?
For newer writers, I’d suggest studying successful pitches (like this one and this one, for example, both of which are a little on the long side), and taking a look at Drew Nelles’s blog post on how to write a magazine pitch. Make sure that where you’re pitching is a good fit for your story, and, before you pitch, have a list in your head or on paper of where you’d send the pitch next if it’s not immediately successful. (This is something I find helpful—I feel less discouraged about rejection if I’ve already got a plan in my pocket for what comes next.)
For writers who are mostly familiar with writing for literary magazines, and who’d like to start writing for cultural or general interest magazines, I’d suggest spending a bit of time getting an understanding of how the two modes differ. Taking personal essay as an example: for a lit mag, you might choose one kind of structure and pacing for your essay, and you’ll submit the finished essay. For a cultural or general interest mag, you probably still want to write the whole essay (because you don’t necessarily know what your themes and tensions will be before you write it)—but, after you’ve written it, I’d suggest sort of reverse-engineering a strong pitch for the essay rather than submitting the entire thing. And be prepared to structure the second draft a bit differently, if it does get accepted—you’ll probably need to front-load information in a way that you might not with a lit mag.
Why do you think it is important for emerging writers to submit to literary journals?
That’s a good question. The career-focused answer is that building a portfolio of writing credits helps you out if and when you want to write and publish a book, or apply for grants. Another answer is that it feels really satisfying to see your writing in print, and to feel like maybe you’re participating in some kind of broader literary conversation or culture. (I say you, but it’s really the first-person cheat kind of you.) Yet another answer is that, from the lit mag’s perspective, it’s so great to read strong work by new writers! Speaking as an editor, I read magazines and journals and keep mental or paper lists of writers whose work I like, so that maybe I can solicit from them, or somehow work with them, down the road.
Why do you think some of the most interesting work that comes out in Canada comes from emerging writers?
Emerging writers often have lots of energy and enthusiasm and big thoughts about the world and the literary world, and maybe they haven’t yet realized just how small Canada is, so they’re often also more okay with taking a bite out of our established literary idols or movements. All of that makes for arresting work.
You are also an award-winning non-fiction writer. How do you feel about submissions and rejection now that you’re on the other side?
Good question. I have a lot of personal feelings that I’m not sure are super relevant to this conversation—for example it feels important to me to try to respond to writers within a reasonable time frame, so that they can take their work somewhere else, and to give a bit of feedback about a rejection when the pitch was something we really considered—when it was sort of close to making the cut.
In terms of anything that might be helpful to writers…hmmm…I think the thing that was most helpful for me was to start keeping an excel sheet of submissions, so that when I received a rejection I could take a minute to re-evaluate the piece or the pitch—is it as ready as I thought it was?—and either take time to edit or adjust the piece or pitch, or, if I still felt like it was as strong as when I first sent it out, to turn it around and send it somewhere new.
The one thing I’ll say is a bit frustrating as an editor is when a writer sends me very similar work over and over again like clockwork, and it’s not a good fit for the magazine (I’m speaking generally here—it’s happened at every magazine I’ve edited for), and it’s never going to be a good fit for the magazine. So if an editor rejects your work kindly and with comment the first time around, and you send them stuff weekly or monthly after that and their responses become rote, it’s probably time to take a break and review your submission strategy.
Who was your first publisher? How did you react when it happened?
The first lit mag that published my work was The Antigonish Review. Two short poems. At the time, I was on the waitlist for the Creative Writing MFA at UBC, and when I got the thumbs-up from TAR, it was a little beacon of hope: yes! okay! I’ll keep going!
How is your career at this stage different from when you were just starting?
On one hand it’s like night and day and on the other hand it’s very similar: I develop work, some of it is awful and some of it has potential, I submit it or pitch it, it’s rejected or accepted. I feel weary and hopeful. You know, the usual.
When I was starting out, before I went to UBC, the whole industry seemed very opaque and like it was populated with a different type of human than I was or am. I’m a townie. It was weird for me to go to university. What authority did I have to insert myself into some kind of literary or political conversation? Going to UBC really changed everything for me, in that respect: my professors were all really down-to-earth people and I really felt like I’d found a place where I fit. I also got a sense of how the industry worked from the inside. Surprise: it is and isn’t as Toronto-fancy as I thought. You can learn how to navigate publishing the same way you can learn how to re-wire a lamp.
Career-wise, I’ve tried to a) enjoy and learn from all my experiences; b) bite off more than I can chew from time to time (I learned how to report while working on my first feature for Maisonneuve, and I will feel eternally grateful to Drew Nelles and Amelia Schonbek for guiding me through and giving me that chance); c) build on what I’ve done before to keep advancing.
You worked with Canadian Women in Literary Arts (CWILA). What is the benefit of doing audits of journals and what kind of change do you think it fosters?
I was an interview editor at CWILA, and I also helped out with some of the counts. I think it’s always good to have information and data to work with, and doing an annual count allows you to see how things are changing or not changing over time. I think that the reviews count is a great place to start—I wish there was a byline count, too, and I know that there’s been an ongoing conversation about whether and how to count for more than gender—race, sexuality, etc. Having this data allows us to ask better questions of ourselves and of editors, and it allows people’s perceptions to be confirmed or shaken. (I had a feeling that there wasn’t a ton of non-fiction by women being reviewed: now I have something to point to say that that’s quantifiably true.)
As Maisonneuve’s Associate Editor, I edit our book room, assigning books to the EIC, to our capable interns, and to myself. Knowing, for example, that men review books by women less often than books by men, I’m more likely to question my own ingrained biases when I’m assigning books to review.
I read on CWILA.com that in 2011 your reviews section was split pretty much 50/50 by gender (reviewed authors and reviewers). I also read there that you take several factors into account when assigning book reviews, including author gender, genre, and the size of the publisher. What other strategies do you take to publish writing from diverse communities?
For the next issue, I think we’ll be reviewing one poetry book, a novel, a book of short stories, a nonfiction book, and a graphic novel. I’m stoked about all the books we’re reviewing. I’m also aware that three of the books are written by men and two are by women and that most of the authors are white, and I also have a sense of where in the country they’re writing from. So when I’m thinking about our spring issue and flipping through publisher catalogues, I’ll keep all that in mind: as I’m looking for new books to be stoked about, I’ll think about how all our balances are shaping up.
What other literary journals do you read? Any recent issues you read that you found exciting?
Other than Maisy and PRISM (I do PRISM‘s layout, hi PRISM!), I regularly read Hazlitt, The Walrus, Harper‘s, Mother Jones, Pacific Standard, and all of the longform stuff that comes out with places like Texas Monthly and the New York Times. I flip through basically all the Canadian lit mags and rest on and read things that catch my eye. There are some really memorable stories I’ve read recently—stories about contemporary labour practices, like Esther Kaplan’s The Spy Who Fired Me and Dave Jamieson’s The Life and Death of a Warehouse Temp (which both recall Mac McClelland’s I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave). Happy Christmas, this is what I’m thinking most about right now :S.