‘Weird Interests and Vague Qualifications’: Zora Sanders on Editing Meanjin
Zora Sanders became the new editor of Meanjin, aged just 25 – quite an achievement. But maybe not surprising, given that her grandmother worked on the magazine in the 1970s, with original editor Clem Christensen. It was obviously meant to be.
On the eve of the publication of her first edition as editor, we spoke to her about her vision for the magazine, the importance of digital publishing (including a new iPad app), her love of maritime history (really), and why you should think twice before sending in your story about a child living in the bush with an alcoholic father.
When did you start at Meanjin – and what drew you to the magazine?
I started in March of 2011. I’d been looking for a ‘real’ job for about 14 months, after finishing university and editing the Melbourne Uni student mag Farrago in 2009. I really had no idea what I wanted to do, or what I was qualified to do. I was working part-time and volunteering at another magazine, but in reality I was going a little bit stir crazy applying for jobs and getting nowhere. Then a friend passed on the ad for the Meanjin deputy editor job and I thought I had no chance at all. But I applied, and then I got an interview, and the interview went really well, and suddenly here I am. I knew about Meanjin before I applied of course, and actually my grandmother worked on the magazine in the 1970s with Clem Christesen, but primarily what drew me was that Meanjin seemed like a place where my weird interests and vague qualifications might actually be useful. In retrospect it seems like this is the only place I could ever seriously have worked.
What is your vision for Meanjin? How do you see the magazine evolving?
It is something every lit journal editor thinks about, but if every person who submitted work to Meanjin also subscribed to Meanjin, there would be no need for us to apply for grants and run subscription drives; we’d be a very profitable enterprise indeed. While we probably can’t mandate that only subscribers can submit to us (though Overland states that they read submissions from subscribers first, and what an excellent idea that is!) there are lots of ways we can try and build a committed community of readers and writers, an audience for whom Meanjin isn’t just a magazine or website, but a centre for literary and cultural activity of all kinds.
I imagine, in five or ten years, Meanjin will offer a range of services to readers and writers beyond the publication of the journal. Services like manuscript assessments of short work, mentorships and fellowships, reading groups, writers’ groups, talks and seminars, masterclasses, and a range of interactive online activities. The problem, of course, is always how limited our resources are, and it can be hard enough just getting the journal to press, without trying to run all those extra events as well. But if we want to grow, and last and improve, we need to have a community around us; we need our audience to feel as invested in Meanjin’s future as I do.
What are some of the pieces or writers you’ve published in your time at Meanjin that you’re proudest of? (And why?)
The best part of my job is reading something amazing by someone you’ve never heard of before. The other best part of my job (they’re equal best) is working with an author who has a great idea or an incredible voice and just needs some guidance to turn a very good piece into an amazing piece. I always remember the moment I picked up Rebecca Giggs’ short story ‘The Office of Icebergs’ from the submissions pile (back when we still accepted hardcopies) and began reading. I knew within a page that it was going to be one of those very special pieces that arrive fully formed and original and perfect. I don’t usually call people to accept their work, but as soon as I finished I just had to talk to her and tell her I wanted to publish it. Speaking to Rebecca on the phone, I think she thought I was a bit nuts to be so enthusiastic that I had to accept it RIGHT THAT SECOND, but I really was that excited.
And in terms of pride, publishing Elmo Keep’s incredible memoir about what happened to her during a summer heatwave in Sydney, is a piece I feel thrilled to have had any role at all in bringing to the world. Elmo is such an incredible storyteller and just so goddamn smart about everything she does. To steal a quote from Jack Donaghy, one day we’ll all either be working for her, or dead by her hand. Hopefully the former.
You have a real affinity for the digital world, and you’ve been instrumental in shaping the magazine’s online presence. How important is that aspect of the magazine?
More important all the time. There is no getting away from digital, though god knows the endless circular discussions about what it will mean for publishing can be exhausting. Clearly the next phase, the digital phase, is still in its infancy. Being a part of it, trying to influence the direction it takes, experimenting and taking risks – these are exciting ways to engage with the digital world. Endlessly speculating about whether this is the death of print, or of publishing altogether, interests me a whole lot less.
Meanjin is about to launch an iPad app, which will be something of an experiment for us. We know that lots of people already read Meanjin on portable devices, but will a dedicated iPad app make any significant difference to the experience? I think it might, and I think it’s going to be a really beautiful thing to use. My goal with everything we do digitally is to bring Meanjin to more people, to try and make them as excited about the writing we publish as I am.
The things we do digitally are also part of the community-building I mentioned before, which is important not only for the health of the journal, but also important for making Meanjin a place I and others want to be and want to be published. No one wants to feel that they’re publishing into a void, but it can sometimes appear that way. When you do something online, you instantly get feedback, you can tell how many people have read something, you can ask what they think of it, watch them share it with their friends and see it take on a life of its own, which is great. Weird and sometimes a little alarming, but great all the same.
What are some of the literary publications (digital or print) that you admire? Are there any that have inspired you as an editor?
I vividly remember seeing Ronnie Scott, founding editor of The Lifted Brow, dressed in a too-small Scouts uniform hanging around Newcastle during the National Young Writers’ Festival in 2008, and thinking ‘now THAT is a cool guy’. I knew he edited something called The Lifted Brow, but I didn’t know what it was or why it had such a ridiculous name (actually I still don’t know that), but it was clear he was doing something very special. I still think of Ronnie when someone talks about magazine editors they admire, even though now I know him well enough to realise he’s actually only 95% as cool as he seems, the rest is pure nerd. But he created a magazine that is so exciting, so full of ideas and risks and general oddities that I suspect it will be regarded as one of the great ‘little magazines’ in time. Sam Cooney, the new editor, has big shoes to fill, but I hear his feet are pretty enormous so the future for The Brow looks bright.
Looking further afield, I don’t think any editor could look at the stable of McSweeney’s publications without envy. They certainly couldn’t look at their production values without envy. And of course we all look to the New Yorker as a beacon of hope and ambition in what can feel like some very dark times for publishing. The old Frank Moorhouse line that ‘Meanjin is an aboriginal word for “rejected by the New Yorker”’ always felt like pretty high praise to me, considering the quality of work they must reject every day.
If you could publish any writer on any subject, who (and what) would it be? Dream big!
I’m going to drive all my friends crazy by saying that if I could commission anything, I would commission a piece of memoir from Jeronimus Cornelisz, the infamous instigator and mastermind of the Batavia massacre. Maritime history is my passion, and my nearest and dearest are sick to death of hearing about it. I won’t share the particularly cruel nickname my fascination with the sea has earned me, but let’s just say it implies my obsession is perhaps not as fascinating to others as it is to me.
Though once you start reading about the Batavia wreck and massacre, I don’t know how anyone could not get at least a little obsessed. Someone once told me that the Batavia is where Australian writers go to die, meaning every Australian writer seems to have attempted a novel or a dramatization or a screenplay based on the Batavia at some point. But if I could get Cornelisz himself to write an account, well that would trump them all! And he was known for his incredible way with words (how else do you engineer the murders of 120 or so men, women and children without once getting your hands bloody?) so even if the piece was deranged, at least it would be well-written.
I have joked before that my secret agenda is to turn Meanjin into a journal of maritime history, but in reality the Australian Maritime Museum already puts out an excellent publication called Signals, and I’m not sure the market could really sustain another one.
What would be your advice to aspiring writers dreaming of being published in Meanjin? Do you have any dos and/or don’ts?
Do: write about maritime history, obviously. (I’m only half joking there) But if you can’t do that, have a strong idea. I come across a lot of people, young and old, who want to be writers because they want to be writers because they want to be writers. If you don’t have a great idea, the cleanest prose in the world can’t save you.
And don’t be afraid to use genre! My favourite novelists are the ones who understand and play with genre (Ishiguro, Atwood etc.) and while you do also need to have good control of language, a great idea can carry you a long way. And it can certainly make me take a chance on a piece that might need work in other areas.
Don’t: write a story or memoir about a parent with dementia or a child in the bush with an alcoholic father unless you are dead-set certain you are writing the best story about a parent with dementia or a child in the bush with an alcoholic father that’s ever been written. I don’t know why certain ideas hit the zeitgeist when they do, but both of those are ones we’ve been seeing a lot of in the last 12 months, and it’s a good bet to pick another theme if you don’t want to bore us to tears.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned so far in your time at Meanjin?
If you’re a bit of a scatterbrain, like I am, then learning how to apologise sincerely and effectively is very important. Even if you aren’t a scatterbrain, in a job like this where people are sending you work that contains their blood, sweat and tears, not to mention big chunks of their soul, it’s inevitable that at some point you will need to apologise to someone. I don’t have the time or mental capacity to give everything that comes my way the attention it deserves, and even though I have an amazing deputy editor and wonderful team of volunteers to support me, I still make a lot of mistakes. Meanjin has certainly taught me the value of taking responsibility for your screw-ups.
Having said that, Meanjin has also taught me that sometimes people are angry and aggressive and there’s not much you can do about it. Learning to identify and shut down those cases is also a skill worth honing.
Zora’s first edition of Meanjin as editor, which will be Canberra-themed, is released this week.