Congratulations to Andrew Scott, assistant professor of English, on the publication of his first book, Naked Summer (Press 53, 2011.). In order to mark the occassion, we asked another English department faculty member, Jared Sexton, to interview Andrew about his first full-length book and his life as a writer, editor and teacher. Below is the first installment.
1. You’re a son of the Midwest. You were raised here, educated here, you teach and live here, and your collection, Naked Summer, reads like a love letter to this region. What do you think is so special about the Midwest and Midwesterners in general? Is there something about them that makes for good living or writing?
One of my mentors writes about a place after she’s left it, when memory mixes with imagination, and that’s what happened to me, too. I was born in Lafayette, Indiana, but when I moved to New Mexico for grad school, the physical distance teamed up with a strange longing that I couldn’t have predicted. New Mexico was as far away as I could get, after all, and I desperately wanted to live somewhere else. I’d been accepted into all of the MFA programs that actually considered my application, and all were outside the Midwest. I think I subconsciously goofed up the applications to Iowa and Ohio State — forgot to send GRE scores to one, missed a deadline for the other — because I didn’t want to stay in the Midwest.
Susan Neville has an essay about how Hoosiers have to decide if we will stay or leave. I really wanted to leave, and it was good for me to live somewhere else for a while, especially a place as rich and weird and lively — but also deadly — as New Mexico. For many years, nearly every story I tried to write came from Tippecanoe County and its environs. I decided to embrace my place, my home state, in the service of fiction.
All of the clichés that are heaped upon Midwesterners — that we’re simple, quiet, unassuming, honest, generally good-natured, etc. — help create tension when a writer engages them in fiction, because a lot of readers (and certainly most publishers) on the coasts don’t expect people in “the flyover” to have rich inner lives. I think that surprise factor, dumb as it is — oh, Midwesterners are complex people, too! — can often be an advantage for writers. Some of the most surprisingly brutal books of the past few years have come from the Midwest, such as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, or Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.
2. You and your wife are both writers and editors, partnering on the successful journal Freight Stories. What do you think you’ve learned from that different focus that has helped you as a writer or reader?
Editing is a different skill set. Many writers are also good editors, but not all. Victoria Barrett and I have been editors for thirteen years now, first for Puerto del Sol, the literary journal we edited at New Mexico State, but also with Freight Stories, the online fiction journal we founded in 2008. This year, Victoria started her own boutique press called Engine Books. Her first contracted manuscript is a story collection from Patricia Henley, whose debut novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Not too shabby.
For me, editing is rewarding work. It’s also work that has an end. The composition and revision stages my own fiction must go through can be exhausting. But with editing, I’m just a facilitator, a connector, the link between the writer’s vision for a story and the reader’s perception. I have to find a way to help present the best version to readers. Sometimes that means marking up every page, and many stories we’ve published have received that kind of attention from me. But sometimes it means backing off. For example, Lee Martin’s “Bedtime Stories” is only a few pages long. When we accepted that piece, I knew it was good, but I was determined to put Lee through the same editorial scrutiny as any other writer we’ve published, though he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I spent two or three hours on those few pages, questioning every choice, but in the end, I didn’t make a single suggestion. It was like sparring with Sugar Ray Leonard in his prime. I was way out of my league, but that experience made me a better prose-maker. Often the editor changes the story. But sometimes, the story changes the editor.
3. You’ve told me in conversation that the collection has been a work-in-progress that you’ve tooled around with for a while now. Could you take us through a brief, albeit informational, tour of the many ups and downs you’ve had with this manuscript?
I have started other projects in the years since finishing the MFA, and some of those are finally starting to gain momentum, including a few graphic novel projects that I’m excited about. But this collection was always there, and I revised it once or twice a year, top to bottom, during the last decade. A lot of writers might have abandoned it. Don’t most MFA grads ditch their thesis projects? I simply couldn’t bring myself to do that.
I began approaching agents near the end of 2008, just as the recession really started, perhaps the worst time in decades for the book business. In short, agents often read and enjoyed the stories, but all of the ones I was interested in working with wanted a novel instead, or at least in addition to this story collection, and I wasn’t ready.
Meanwhile, an independent press out of North Carolina, Press 53, had started publishing well-respected story collections by authors I admired, so I submitted my manuscript in the fall of 2010. Eight weeks later, I had a contract. Five months after that, you read my book.
Along the way, I learned how to stick with a project and how to trust my judgment, but also about the role luck plays in so many aspects of publishing.