Q&A With Author Steve Almond: Literary Journals, the Perks of a Thousand Rejections

Literary journals—If you’re like me, you’ve circled them in a bookstore at one time or another in your writing life, sniffing at their doors, dazzled by their contents, wondering what they’re all about and just how the authors found their way in.

While I talked to different editors and agents for the literary journal roundup in the Nov/Dec issue of WD, let’s take it a step further—why not a writer?

Author Steve Almond, one of my favorite scribes in WD land (and source of one of the coolest quotes from the magazine in 2009: “All readers come to fiction as willing accomplices to your lies”) has been published in a slew of magazines and journals, and he took the time to share his thoughts on the subject.

Steve is the author of two story collections, and several books of nonfiction. He has two new books coming out—Rock and Roll Will Save your Life, a memoir about his obsession with bands we’ve never heard of (April) and a book of short shorts and short essays, This Won’t Take a Minute, Honey (summer).

Here, he riffs on the role of literary journals, the art of writing short, the benefits of endless rejections and how you might eventually break into such publications yourself. For more about Steve, check out his reading and teaching schedule here.

Where all has your short fiction ended up, and how many publications do you estimate it has landed in?
My stuff has appeared in lots of tiny magazines and a few of the bigger literary ones. Mostly, the small ones. Oh, and I was in Playboy a few times. I always feel a little weird when people mention that, like I’m a pornographer.

When did you sell your first piece, and was it a struggle for you to break the barrier from unpublished to published? What was the key?
Well, I didn’t “sell” a piece for quite a while, but the first pieces that got taken were in 1995. I can remember getting the acceptance, after so many rejections. It was the happiest five minutes of that whole decade. Then I went back to my default position of self-loathing. I’d probably gotten 100 rejections before the first one got taken, maybe more. The key to getting published was finally sending out a story that didn’t suck. Don’t mean that to be glib. It’s just true that a lot of my early work was just really weak—more like summaries than actual stories. Very imitative of the writers I was reading. And it just takes a while to get past your evasions and to start to speak honestly (or let your characters speak honestly) about the stuff that matters to you most deeply.
What are the perks of publishing in literary journals and magazines?
For me, it really just kept me going in the face of rejection and doubt and unhappiness. It was like I was still in the game, as long as there was one magazine that hadn’t rejected a particular story. It’s also a kind of laboratory for emerging writers. There’s incredible competition, so if you want to place a story, you really have to get better in a hurry.


Well, I guess for me anyway, it took a long time. I was publishing in small magazines for nearly a decade before I was able to get a publishing house interested in a story collection.

How do you think they have helped your career?

I don’t think of them as having helped my “career.” I think of them as having made me a better artist. That certainly helps your “career,” but it really depends on what your priorities are. You’ve got a lot of folks these days who would rather find some kind of “platform” (God, I hate that word; it’s just so marketing-scummy) than to practice their craft the old-fashioned way.

How do you view the importance of literary journals today, and what do you think their role is on the writing landscape?
As I’ve said, they’re the laboratory for serious emerging writers. They’re not for people who just want to be famous. They’re for folks who are learning to take themselves and their work more seriously. In other words, they’re insulated from the commercial concerns that act upon art like hydrochloric acid.

What are the basics of a solid short story—one editors like to read?
I edited a literary magazine for a year, so I can tell you what editors want most of all is something fresh. I saw hundreds of tepid stories of suburban angst, the kind of story where nothing is really at stake. I also saw a lot of writers who needlessly confused the reader, or flogged the language. In the end, I just wanted a writer who was going to find a way to tell me the truth about the stuff that mattered to her. Period. It will go without saying that the reader should never be confused, that there shouldn’t be any extra words, that the story should dwell in the most complicated and charged moments.
What should you never forget when submitting?
That even a good story is likely to get rejected. I’ve been rejected thousands of times. You have to accept that as part of the arrangement, and allow it to make you more humble—and stubborn to succeed.

How does writing short pieces sharpen your overall craft ability?
To me, short stories are the hardest sort of prose to write, because every word has to count. You can’t allow any bum adjectives, or metaphors to slip past your censor.

Some publications aspiring writers should consider submitting to:
I’m biased toward the ones that I read, but some of the ones I dig are Tin House, Southern Review, New England Review, Missouri Review, The Normal School, and Opium. But there are dozens out there, and they all have great stuff in them. Not being a Pollyanna, that’s really the way it is.

Courtesy of Steve Almond, feel free to take the following prompt home or post your response (500 words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below. By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional around-the-office swag drawings.

“Look at a recent story and write the whole thing from the point of view of the most detestable character. That’s what I do when I’m stuck.”

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7 thoughts on “Q&A With Author Steve Almond: Literary Journals, the Perks of a Thousand Rejections

  1. Vibram Five Fingers

    I don’t really run barefoot. I wanted to, but the combination of super hot sidewalks and the fear of sharp objects convinced me that Vibram Five Fingers were a good compromise between running shoes and none at all. What I didn’t know was that my reasons were the same as almost everyone else’s and the guys that I looked up to were the same Vibram Fivefingers that everyone else did.
    Though I don’t call myself Barefoot Tyler (mostly because I DON’T RUN BAREFOOT), this video is absolutely hilarious. The insults are far better than the random crap the Vibram Five Fingers guy is spewing. http://www.2vibramfivefingers.com/

  2. JP

    I don’t mean to be a jerk, but the interview really wasn’t that great. It seems so focused on career/money/selling/giving editors exactly what they want instead of writing the best story that you can. There is no formula! Almond kept trying to bring it back to the work, the art, but perhaps that’s not what this magazine concentrates on. OK, I’m sounding more like a jerk than I wanted to. Hopefully you’ll get what I’m trying to say!

  3. Dorraine

    Very informative interview, Zac. Thank you. Thanks also Steve for sharing your publishing experiences and the list of publications.

    I laughed when I saw the cover of your book, (Not that You Asked). It just kinda pops. I’m glad you stuck it out and wish you every success. My own pile of rejections is looking a little less gloomy after reading this. Thanks for that, too!:)

  4. Martha W

    Zac, great interview!

    Mark, Let’s see… would you like McDonald’s dollar menu or BK’s value menu? lol!

    “Look at a recent story and write the whole thing from the point of view of the most detestable character. That’s what I do when I’m stuck.”
    Okay, so this isn’t the most detestable character but, hey, it’s a different view point of the same story… (for his side – see post from 11-6)
    Allie couldn’t believe it.

    Jim just opened the car door and got out, muttering something about gas prices and stupid cars. Now she sat here in ninety degree weather, no gas in the car, and now no boyfriend to even help push. What was she supposed to do now?

    Blowing her bangs out of her face, she stepped out of what little shade she had inside the car to assess the situation. Desert. That’s all there was, desert. Endless sand and one long, lonely highway. Whose stupid idea was this to drive Route 66?

    Oh yeah. His.

    Well, he went that way toward Two Guns Amusement Park, so she should head the other way toward Twin Arrows and maybe someone would help her out. With a resigned sigh, she dug in the trunk for her gym shoes, might as well be comfortable. Five minutes later, she set out for the nearest town.

    Two minutes after that, she squinted at what appeared to be a reflection on a windshield. She stopped walking, the car still only a few feet away, and waited to see what was coming her way. It didn’t take long for the reflection to turn into a full-sized pickup truck with one very hunky driver. Well, well. This was turning out better than she could have hoped.

    He pulled over next to her, rolled the window down, blasting her with blessedly cold air. "You need some help, miss?"

    "Yeah. Ran out of gas. Can you take me to the nearest station?" He might be a serial killer, but wow, what a way to go. Light brown hair, hazel eyes and pouty lips made for sin.

    "I could but it’d be easier if I just filled you up out of the gas cans in the back. You can give me twenty bucks and we’ll call it square." He winked at her and she felt the answering grin spread across her face.

    "Sounds good. Then I can get on the road. Track down that stupid man of mine."

    "Where’d he head to?"

    She jerked her head in the direction he was going. "Two Guns."

    The hunk snorted. Actually snorted. "That’s a deserted ol’ park. Nothing there but dust bunnies now."

    Allie groaned and dropped her head. Jim was gonna be mad. The man’s chuckle brought her face up to look at him. "What?"

    "Let him walk awhile. It’s the least he deserves for leaving a pretty girl like you alone."

    She nodded slowly. "I was thinking the same thing. Pull up over there, I’ll grab my money."

    "You got it."

    Ten minutes later, she was on her way to Two Guns, following Jim’s dusty trail. She wondered if they gave tickets for driving too slow.

  5. Mark James

    Good interview with some great tips, Zac.
    Martha–umm. . . looks like someone owes me lunch . . .

    “You can’t kill all of us,” the man in the polyester suit said.

    I pointed my gun at his head. “Maybe not, but I can start with you.”

    He charged at me.

    I had to rush, but I didn’t want him dead. That would send the rest of them into a panic. I shot his foot.

    He went down screaming.

    I squatted next to Mr. Polyester, rested the barrel of my gun along his temple. “I could make it stop hurting, but I don’t want your brains all over the road. You want that?”

    His head rolled side to side. “No.”

    “Then shut up.”

    “What are you doing to him?”

    I jumped to my feet, whirled, brought up my gun. Damn. Almost shot her.

    “Is he alright?”

    She reminded me of the little sister I would of strangled if had one. “Look kid, I had a long day. Why don’t you – -”

    “I’m not a kid.”

    I looked her up and down, all four feet of her. “Okay. Fine. You’re the mini version of my ex-wife.”

    “Who’s gonna marry you?” she said. “You have to rob banks to get money.”

    Behind me, the Hostage Negotiator started up again. His tinny voice through the cheap loudspeaker was grinding my nerves to pieces. “Tell us what you want, Mr. Crow. We can talk about it. Send out a hostage. We’ll send in food.”

    The kid looked past me. “Food? He’s even dumber than you. Would you want to eat if a bad man was shooting people?”

    “I’m not a – – ”

    Out of no place, a woman shrieked at the top of her lungs. “For God’s sake Sheila, shut up. You demon spawn.”

    I heard of cracking under pressure, but this woman was out of her freaking mind. “Jesus Christ lady, you don’t think she heard enough yelling and screaming today?”

    Sheila got closer than I should of let even a little kid like her get. She kind of leaned over, like she was whispering in my ear. “That’s my mom. No pink pills today.” She made herself shake all over, like a wind up doll set to ‘jitter’.

    I wanted to stop myself, but I couldn’t. I laughed.

    “You and your high I. Q.,” Sheila’s mother said. “We’ll all die on this filthy street.”

    "Lady –"

    "Don’t you see he’s insane?”

    I’m insane? You heard yourself lately lady? I would of paid the guy on the loudspeaker in gold bars to get him to shut up. But Sheila’s mother, I’d of given her the Hope Diamond just so she’d put her mouth on pause.

    Sheila went right on talking, like her mom was invisible. “Would they shoot a man carrying a kid?”

    “No, but I don’t know where to find one who’s not gonna scream and claw my eyes out. Do you?”

    Sheila smiled, tapped her narrow chest.

    “Thought you weren’t a kid.”

    Hands on her hips, she looked up at me, squinting against the setting sun. “Are you a bad man?”

    “Hell no.”

    “Then I’m not a kid. Let’s go.”

    Her mother screamed something. I’m glad she didn’t come after us. I probably wouldn’t of shot her, but I wouldn’t take any bets on it.


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