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Interview: Shannon Ravenel, Editor

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One day in the fall of 2004, I sent out four communications to different editors. Here’s what happened:

–I mailed query letters and writing samples to the editor of a Midwestern university press and an editor at a university press on the west coast. In both cases, I followed the submission guidelines exactly and included self-addressed-stamped envelopes. Neither editor ever responded in any way.

–I emailed a quick, professional note to an editor with a tiny, independent publisher. The only people who have heard of this publisher are people like us, aspiring writers. The publisher’s submission guidelines were posted in two places on the website and they contradicted each other. So I sent a note saying that I respected their time and wanted to follow the appropriate set of guidelines if he could just tell me which set was the correct one. He replied in about two weeks and said, exactly as presented below:

no do not send anything no unsolicited manuscripts

No punctuation, no greeting, no closing, no “thank you for being interested in our company,” nada. But he did answer my question so I was grateful for that.

–I also sent a query letter, a short synopsis and bio, and three sample chapters of my manuscript to Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin Books, the patron saint of Southern literature. Within a week, she emailed me, addressed me by name, mentioned the name of my manuscript, politely explained that she was not taking on any new submissions and was concentrating on her current list of authors, said she forwarded my manuscript to the regular Algonquin readers, thanked me for my interest and wished me the best of luck. All in all, it probably took her thirty seconds to write that email. Maybe a minute. Or maybe it was a form email where she just plugged in my name. Regardless, it made a huge impression on me.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence… or maybe it’s significant. I’m sure they’re all decent people and they don’t owe me a thing in the world, but it’s amazing that the one editor out of the four who had the most reason to be remote, unresponsive, aloof, abrupt, and too-busy-to-be-bothered was Shannon Ravenel. Yet she took the time to send a nice note to an unknown writer while two others didn’t answer at all and one guy seemed to think that punctuation and capitalization was a chore. I don’t want to make too much of this, but maybe the reason Ravenel is a publishing legend and the others work for companies no one but aspiring authors have ever heard of is because of the personal attention, the willingness to spend an extra thirty seconds typing an email, and the kind attitude. I’m willing to bet that if I polled her authors, they would agree that her personal touch and her willingness to give her time is a large part of her success.

That generosity remained evident recently when Ms. Ravenel agreed to do a Slushpile interview. She stuck with us through numerous technical glitches and remained committed to the project. Her generosity and personal attention are remarkable. She talked to us about the positioning of Algonquin, the role of Southern literature, and the joy of discovering a new talent.

Slushpile: Please tell us a little about your background. How did you end up with Algonquin?

Ravenel: When I was a sophomore at Hollins College in Virginia, Louis Rubin arrived to head up the English Department. He became my advisor… for life! After college I worked at Holt in New York for a year (writing direct mail ad copy for school books), then moved to Boston where I joined the trade editorial department, moving from secretary to full editor over ten years.

In 1971, I quit to follow my scientist husband, Dale Purves, to London where he had a two-year post doctoral fellowship. In London, I read English books for HMCo and American books for MacMillan, Ltd. When we moved back to the states to St. Louis–where Dale opened his neurosphysiology lab at Washington University Medical School–I did all kinds of freelance stuff until 1978 when HMCo asked me to be Series Editor of Best American Short Stories. I edited 13 volumes (1978-1990) of Best American Short Stories and a retrospective anthology, Best American Short Stories of the Eighties.

In 1982, Louis had his brain child, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, and asked me to join him in establishing it. I did, with enormous pleasure and enthusiasm, even though for the first seven years, I worked from St. Louis. In 1990, Dale was hired to start a department of neurobiology at Duke Medical School which meant that (at last!) I was in the Algonquin offices in body as well as spirit. In 1992, Louis resigned and I became Editorial Director. In 2001, I stepped down as Editorial Director to start my own Algonquin imprint, Shannon Ravenel Books.

Slushpile: What do you think has been the secret to Algonquin’s success? How did you become arguably the most prestigious publisher in the South?

Ravenel: Most important was, I believe, Louis’s vision for the company. He wanted simply to found a small publishing house accessible (the operative word) to new/young writers who were without reputation and/or contacts with the New York publishing industry. When we first started out, the only writers who knew about us were Southern ones who passed the word among themselves. So our first lists were laden with Southern writers and we got a reputation for being a good place for Southern writers and a good publisher of Southern books. As the years passed, we published more and more widely, but the niche was sort of set. When Peter Workman bought Algonquin and made it a division of Workman Publishing in 1989, he intuitively recognized the value of our niche.

Also, we began our annual anthology, New Stories from the South in 1986. It’s now in its 20th year and it keeps us up-to-date in regard to emerging Southern talent. Over the years, we’ve published almost 200 different writers in that anthology and have added many of their books to our line, books by Leon Driskell, Luke Whisnant, Lewis Nordan, Robert Love Taylor, Larry Brown, Nanci Kincaid, Kelly Cherry, Robert Morgan, Lee Merril Byrd, Tony Early, George Singleton, Melanie Sumner, Jesse Lee Kerchival, Ellen Douglas, Dwight Allen, Wendy Brenner, Stephen Marion, Marshall Boswell, Aaron Gwyn, Ingrid Hill. We have run stories by several of our other authors in the series, too–Jill McCorkle’s, Lee Smith’s, Clyde Edgerton’s, Steve Almond’s among them.

A third factor is, I think, our smallness. Some writers prefer the experience of direct editorial and promotional contact. They like that we answer our own phones and that the staff turnover is tiny, at least in comparison with the mega houses.

Slushpile: For a while in the mid-to-late nineties, it seemed like being a Southern writer was a quick way to get signed. Similar to the way the music industry seized upon alternative bands from Seattle and suddenly every musician with a flannel shirt was signed, it seemed like Southern writers were everywhere. Now, it seems like that attention has cooled somewhat. Do you think a postmark from below the Mason-Dixon Line is an advantage or disadvantage today?

Ravenel: It’s nearly impossible to have objective perspective from the inside. But from my stance, I’d say that there’s been no discernible evaporation in the talent pool.

Slushpile: What would you like to see in more writing today? What do you think aspiring authors need to pay more attention to in their work?

Ravenel: After 40 years in this business, I have come to the conclusion that what I want is to be engaged by books, to be drawn in at their beginnings and held to the very ends. Prevailing topics and styles aren’t of much interest to me. Real writers write from what strikes them as pressing and important and nobody should try to influence them away from that.

Slushpile: New and aspiring authors often don’t understand the nature of publishing and the way publishing companies operate. And their lack of understanding often leads to a great deal of frustration. What do you wish aspiring authors understood about the nature of your job?

Ravenel: I wish aspiring authors would take the time to learn the market. When we get a submission of poetry, we have to assume that the writer doesn’t know much about Algonquin. We don’t publish poetry. We don’t publish children’s books. We don’t publish genre fiction. And yet we get a lot of submissions in those categories. A waste of time and postage.

Slushpile: Do you have any idea how many submissions Algonquin receives in a week, month, or year? How many do you publish?

Ravenel: We log around one thousand full manuscript submissions a year. And we receive more than that number of query letters with sample pages. We now publish about 30 new titles a year.

Slushpile: The cliche is that there are more people writing books than reading them. While this may or may not be true, it certainly seems like everyone wants to write or has thought about it. What do you think causes this deluge of would-be-writers?

Ravenel: I understand the motivation. Writing is something that involves almost no monetary investment–pen and paper (or the modern equivalent thereof). Why not try it? But what aspiring writers need to take into account is that the writers who succeed are the ones who can’t NOT write.

Slushpile: I read for both pleasure and business so naturally I devour a great deal of literature each week. And there are periods when I get into a rut and I could read the greatest book ever written and I would just be numb to it. I try to recognize these ruts and refrain from writing book reviews during those numb periods. But as an editor, you don’t have that luxury. You have to read, absorb, and evaluate submissions. So how do you maintain an open mind and willingness to give each manuscript a chance, even when you’re exhausted and you’ve already waded through dozens of manuscripts that week?

Ravenel: It’s the lure of discovery–the notion that the next great American novel is just around–or at the bottom of–the most recent pile of submissions.

Slushpile: What is the biggest mistake that you think aspiring authors make today when they submit their manuscripts to publishers?

Ravenel: Other than not knowing the market, the biggest mistake is thinking that publishers will respond to a full manuscript submission within a month and that publishers will offer feedback or criticism on manuscripts that are rejected. Unknown and/or unrepresented writers should realistically count on a response in three months. And unless the publisher is interested in taking the book, no feedback or criticism can be expected. It’s a matter of time as well as the recognition that what one publisher dislikes another publisher might love.

Slushpile: If I remember the story correctly, you contacted Larry Brown after seeing one of his stories in The Greensboro Review or a similar publication. It might have been the short story, Facing the Music. What were your first impressions of Larry?

Ravenel: It was Facing the Music. I read it in The Mississippi Review. What impressed me first and always about his writing was that it was utterly unblinking in the face of human pain and suffering. What impressed me about Larry when I met him (just after the first book, Facing the Music, was published in 1988), was his quiet confidence. He had spent so much time learning his craft that by the time he was finally published, he had earned the right to that confidence. He was soft spoken, very direct, and completely himself, never trying to pass himself off as anything but what he was. He had deep insight into the human spirit.

Slushpile: What other literary discoveries are you most proud of in your career?

Ravenel: I am proud of every single book I’ve edited. Leading the pack of those I’m most proud of is Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan.

Slushpile: How closely do you work with your writers? Do you read interim drafts and segments of their work? Or do you only see the manuscript when they have what they consider a final draft?

Ravenel: I work differently with different writers. Some, like Nordan, wait to send me what are–in their eyes–final drafts. Others want feedback from the earliest drafts right through to the final ones. One thing I do with all the writers is give specific feedback in writing–on the manuscript pages and in letters or emails. I’m not much for long phone calls and I like a record of what happens as the books evolve.

Slushpile: Cynthia Shearer’s recent novel The Celestial Jukebox (published by Shoemaker & Hoard) was set in the Mississippi Delta and featured a diverse cast of Hispanic, Asian, African-American, and Muslim characters. Why do you think we still don’t see much of this in Southern fiction and we continue to see bumpkins, dirt roads, screen doors slamming shut on the porch, and other more stereotypical depictions of the South?

Ravenel: If this theory holds water–and I kind of doubt that it does–I’m sure I couldn’t explain it or would want to try to affect some kind of shift. As I’ve said earlier, writers reflect what they know and what strikes them as illuminating. It’s not for me to suggest otherwise.

Slushpile: Southern literature has had Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, Ellen Gilchrist, Harry Crews, and others as its elite for a while now. Who are some newer Southern writers that you think will grow into that same prestigious status?

Ravenel: There are so many. Here are just a few off the top of my head: Edward P. Jones, Cathy Day, Susan Perabo, Tom Franklin, Mark Richard, Pinckney Benedict, Michael Knight, Jane Shippen, Brock Clark, Lucy Corin, ZZ Packer, Tayari Jones, Bret Anthony Johnston, Stephanie Soileau, Judy Bundnitz, Rebecca Soppe.

Slushpile: What books do you have coming out in the near future that you’d like us to know about?

Ravenel: I have two books on our Spring 2006 list I’m excited about–one by a much loved and well known author and the other by a relatively unknown first novelist. Saving the World by Julia Alvarez, is her fifth novel and I think her most powerful. It has two heroines each of whom is associated with a man doing battle with the particular scourge of his era–small pox in the early 19th century and AIDS in the 21st. Riley’s Fire by Lee Merrill Byrd is a short, delicate novel about a boy who sets himself on fire by accident and has to live his life from behind his ruined face.

Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors trying to break into print?

Ravenel: To remember that writers are not born, they are made, that they are made by dint of very hard work and the willingness to revise and revise and revise, and that nothing substitutes for practice. I will never forget the first phone conversation I had with Larry Brown shortly after I had read Facing the Music. I asked him if he had other stories I could look at. He answered that he had “about a hundred worth the postage.” He added that he had also written and trashed five novels at that point, but had no novel good enough to show me.