‘All That Excites Me is Good Writing’: Geordie Williamson on Editing Fiction For Island

Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic of the Australian and author of The Burning Library (Text), a reclamation of and introduction to Australian literature, has just been appointed the new fiction editor of Island magazine.

We spoke to him about his new appointment, what he looks for in a story, and his approach to editing fiction … plus, tips for writers who might like to submit!

When did you come on board as fiction editor for Island, and how did the appointment come about? What attracted you to the role?

The appointment was suggested by email a few months back – Matt Lamb threw the possibility into the digital ether – but it was cemented in Tasmania three weeks ago. Island flew me and the new poetry editor (who shall remain mysteriously nameless until they are announced in May) down to Hobart and we passed a busy and social weekend, meeting the folks behind the journal and nailing down our shared vision for its future. It was like heading to Charleston, Sussex circa 1920 and finding Virginia Woolf and John Meynard Keynes muddling martinis in preparation for dinner – high-minded and well lubricated. Also, I went to MONA: a mid-life highlight.

You’ve selected and edited the stories for your first issue as fiction editor. Can you tell us a bit about your selections, and how you made them?

I was guest editor for Matt at the Review of Australian Fiction for its last series – issues that included Alex Miller, Frank Moorhouse, Tegan Bennett Daylight and Ashley Hay (the last two appeared in Black Inc’s Best Australian Stories 2013 for their contributions to the RAF) – so I knew the drill. He wanted the most beautiful, the smartest, the funniest, the darkest, the best fiction being produced in Australia today. It was all I could do to keep up with his finely targeted enthusiasm. Our first of issue of Island together rode on the strength of those associations: Ashley was present again and Tegan will appear in upcoming issues. Colin Oehring I happened across quite by accident but I could see the worth in his work immediately. Paul Griffith’s Noh stories blew me away when I happened across them in a monograph put out by the American University in Paris. It was a fine list of contributors and I’m grateful to them.

You’re making the transition from being a prolific and high profile critic to an editor commissioning work and shepherding authors through the editorial process. Are there any challenges along the way? Do you think your background as a reviewer will influence the way you approach this role at all?

I’m still reviewing, still chief literary critic at the Australian, so it’s more an addition than a transition. The challenge is mainly in filling the space with good work – and good work (here’s the hack in me coming out) tends to arrive as clean copy requiring little editorial intervention. As for my background as a reviewer: if there is any job that prepares you to back your own judgement, to be conscious of relative merit and proclaim it, it is reviewry.

How would you diagnose the health of Australian literary magazines (and their role in nurturing and discovering new fiction) right now? What do you see as the challenges and opportunities of your role in the current landscape?

Australian literary magazines are the most dynamic and vibrant aspect of our current literary landscape. I’d go so far as to claim that no other Anglosphere nation has a little magazine scene like ours, factoring in the relative size of our local audience. When the then-editor of Granta, John Freeman, came to Perth Writer’s Week last year he couldn’t believe the depth and breadth of our magazine culture. And as Matt Lamb points out, it’s not just the established journals. Upstarts such as Kill Your Darlings, Seizure and The Lifted Brow are changing the game. I sold rare books in London for years and spent a lot of time cataloguing runs of little magazines like The Dial or Blast or The Egoist – insurgent organs that broke Modernism during the teens and twenties of the last century, at a time when the official publishing scene was still obsessing over John Galsworthy’s latest novel. These new Australian journals are doing a similar job today.

What’s your approach to editing fiction? Do you believe in a light touch, solid intervention to help the writer make their story better, or something in the middle?

I just want to be delighted, frightened, instructed, awestruck.

Geordie Williamson

Happily my editorial approach and my constitutional indolence are in perfect accord. If a story is any good, it is likely because it sustains an idea or a voice over several thousand words. What value is there in an editor inserting his or her own vision or style as a means of improving the piece? So I’m happy to suggest possible alternatives but very reluctant to rummage about myself. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, of course – they’re technical aspects and can be neutrally deployed if need be. I don’t mind pruning either, since we all use more words than we really need. And then Island has its own copy-editing process to go through.

What kinds of writers and stories will you be looking for, as fiction editor of Island? What excites you in a submission?

All that excites me is good writing. I don’t care where the story comes from. I don’t care about its setting, subject matter, length or use of the semi-colon. I don’t care about the age, ethnicity, gender, educational attainments of the author, or the political, religious or philosophical positions they hold. I just want to be delighted, frightened, instructed, awestruck.

Do you have any tips – dos and don’ts – for writers looking to submit to the magazine?

Don’t be afraid to mail something off to me – you may be sick of the story or the latest chapter of your novel, having read it a million times. But I’ll be coming to it fresh.

And don’t hold back your story from Island because you think a) it’s a Tasmanian literary magazine, or b) Island has a relatively small circulation, or c) that the recompense is negligible. Yes, Island is based in Tasmania, and is proudly Tasmanian, but two-thirds of its circulation is outside the state, and its pages are open to all-comers, whether they’re from Tassie, the Australian mainland or overseas. And while all Australian literary mags have relatively small circulations, if you can impress me in its pages then you can be sure that there will be a thousand words cleared in the books pages of the national broadsheet for your next novel or short story collection to be reviewed. Finally, payment. I don’t have much money but I do have a measure of discretion when it comes to distribution. If a submission knocks my socks off then I will sell my children for medical experimentation in order to pay decent money for the piece. Also, we’re in talks with local Tassie vineyards and distilleries – as a good New South Welshman I’m comfortable using alcohol as top-up currency.

What’s the last great thing you read?

I’m just finishing Elizabeth Harrower’s long-lost final novel, In Certain Circles. It is so good that I feel superlatives would be a vulgar waste. Let’s just say that it was worth every moment of the 40-year wait.

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