There is a clear change in the design of the Roanoke Review between Winter 2001 and Spring of 2002 which was your first issue as editor. Could you talk about why you wanted to change the look of the magazine? How did this change the perception of the magazine?
I wanted to change it because I felt like the technology had changed, so we could do so much more with it and the way it looked. I wanted to change it because I think the way we respond to things is impacted by the way something looks visually, and I thought if I could have something that looks beautiful on the outside, people would carry that into the inside. But even the typesetting I wanted changed, a little bit, too. I actually worked with a student, Jim Goodwin, ’02, to do the first design of the hardcopy. And the art on the cover was by a woman named Rachel Denham who is married to a guy named Bob Denham who used to be the endowed chair of the English Department.
So it was an opportunity to celebrate students and faculty. But I think the way something looks matters; I think we respond to looks in terms of text and type.
And that must have been the first issue that had any form of artwork as in the cover art. So how did incorporating artists into the Review help it expand?
We always use—with one exception—local artists, so I think it expanded that. Locally, people started paying attention to it a little bit more. And I frankly think that it helped the reputation because it just looked more professional. And it always was professional, it just looks more professional.
You were also essential to moving the Roanoke Review online. What prompted this decision? Can you tell us more about that transition?
It was pure readership. It just seemed silly to keep producing 500 hard copies and only sell 250 of them when we could go online and have 250 hits a month. So it just seemed like the smarter thing to do.
It was also cost-efficient, but that wasn't a really big driver. It allowed us to create art galleries. I like art, I’ve always liked art. So it allowed us to have artistic galleries and that sort of graphic, visual component to it. I think there is a lot more opportunity to go with the magazine by transitioning online. I mean, I love the podcasts and stuff like that, so bringing audio into play. And with blogs and finding other modes of interaction… There's just lots of opportunity there, so that was part of it.
And then the other part of it was simply that I had Jonathan Cribb suddenly land in one of my classes, and he was a kid who had a minor in Computer Science. I didn't know much about how to go about designing or implementing something like this, and I thought it would be harder than it frankly is. But just working with Jonathan, having him here. He and I did an independent study for a semester, and then brought on board the first full time staff and did planning for a semester and then put it into play in January 2015. One thing I liked about that is instead of having just a managing editor and myself, now we needed a content editor and a tech editor, as well. So it ended up being much more collaborative and felt like a much more collaborative process in terms of the editing and publication. And it forced us to have a conversation about what we were doing and why we were doing it, and I think that pushes you to be more deliberate.
A significant part of the Roanoke Review’s mission is to provide undergraduates with the opportunity to hold leadership roles in the magazine. Can you tell us about your experiences working with student editors over the years, and why this is such an important part of a liberal arts education?
It’s the single best thing about being editor of the Roanoke Review. Period. By a hundred miles. Not just with the student editors but with the editorial board, the readers, all of that. It’s a place that takes grades out of the equation. And when you take grades out of the equation, you have a more honest conversation, a more thoughtful conversation, a more productive conversation. It’s the single best thing about being the editor.
It gives students an opportunity to have voice, to have agency, to have power. I can’t tell you the number of times where there was a group of students saying “We should take this work” and I’m thinking “No, I don’t like this work. It doesn’t suit my tastes.” And the student voice won. And that’s really important. That’s really meaningful. I remember one time there was a parent-oriented poem in one of the early issues, and I said to one of the women on the staff, “When you’re a parent, you’ll understand.” And three weeks later, there was a poem that they wanted to take. It was something about kitchens or kitchen sinks or ‘in the kitchen’ or ‘in my mother’s kitchen’ or something like that. And she looked at me and said, “Do you remember what you said about ‘when you’re a parent, you’ll understand?’” She goes, “Well from a gender, female perspective, this is the same thing.” And you don’t do that in the classroom. You’ll want to do that in the classroom, but students often times don’t want to do it or they’re wary of doing it, and professors are sometimes wary of having that happen because it might seem disruptive or disrespectful.
The best thing about this always was sitting there in those meetings and having those conversations and having everybody’s voice count equally. In fact, if anything, the things that felt awkward and bad were the moments where I did have to override someone’s suggestions on a story. I’d take it home and read it and go, “Nah, this story isn’t where it needs to be.” And then you have to come back and say “I didn’t take it.”
But those meetings are the single best thing about being editor. In terms of the editors themselves, I have a great deal of pride, I mean, I’m sure I’ve forgotten some names every once in a while, but they’ve all gone on and done wonderful things. My criteria in choosing them always was more “Are they a well-organized person?” than “Are they a literary genius?” Because those two things sometimes go together but often times don’t. I just have a lot of pride in what they all went off and did. I think I edited eleven different years over the fourteen-year period because I had 3 years of leave. Several people went on to grad school, several people are working in publishing in different ways. One minister. I’m okay with that, too, I don’t really care. I think it really is one of those moments that gives students a voice and student editors a sense of what they’re capable of. And that’s what education always should be. It’s not about memorizing facts; it’s about learning what you’re capable of and how you can be part of shaping the world aesthetically, socially, politically, intellectually. That’s what matters.
I wonder, then, if your experience as an editor has shaped how you approach teaching in any way?
Good question. I think it has. It’s an interesting question because I was a teacher before I was an editor, and I continued to be a teacher after being an editor. So figuring out which one shaped the other is difficult. I think it’s a dialogue between the two. I think that making space for work that’s ungraded and for conversations that really matter—as opposed to conversations where there’s a predetermined conclusion that you simply need to lead people to—is important. I think that editing the Review probably did have an influence. I don’t know if it had enough of an influence. It’s always hard to tell. I mean, is it in the practices of what you do in the classroom or is it in the conceptualization of what it means to be a student and what it means to be a teacher? And I think on the conceptual level, it definitely did change my thinking. Recognizing that a sense of authority mattered and having a sense of responsibility mattered, you know? And of course this goes along with other things, too. I mean, I teach the composition theory course, and some of the works of Peter Elbow have changed the way I think about things, too.
I came here when I was 30 years old. I picked up the editorship when I was 35. Plus, you become a parent… All sorts of things. You’d like to think that it’s not linear; it’s more like Jenga. The blocks sort of build off each other, raise each other up higher and higher and higher, and this piece comes from over there, and this piece comes from over here, and you’re hoping things are getting better.
What drove you as an editor? What kind of content were you seeking then and what was your mission for the work that went into the Review?
Again, what drove me always as an editor was the interaction and work with students. In terms of content, what drove me was a sense of humanity. Years ago I had an interaction with Tim Gautreaux, who is a short story writer that I really like. When I first talked to him on the phone to invite him to come to campus and give a reading, I said, "Just so you know I really admire your stories; they're so gracious and humane." His response was, "Yeah, sometimes when I'm teaching a story from the New Yorker, I have to explain to my students why everyone is being so mean to each other." And that really left an impression on me. I never bought the idea that the New Yorker stories are any better or that they're any more revealing about humanity by being dark and angsty. I think there is depth and power to being gracious and loving as well; it's harder and more complicated than simply being angry, self-righteous, or self-pitying. I think I was looking for work that demonstrated that and I also think I was looking for work that my uncle could read and go, "I get why this is a good story." A story doesn't need to be self-indulgent to be a good story. It should be fun to read; it makes me feel something that I hadn't felt before. And the last drive was that I was looking for work that was funny. Sometimes I got it, sometimes I didn’t, but I like funny. I loved that we never knew what we were going to get. We never knew what we were going to love.
Were there any writers that stand out to you as people who you kept seeing appear again and again in the Review?
I was fairly deliberate especially early on about not taking the same people over and over again. I never wanted the magazine to look like an insider club. I do remember some authors who sent us consistently good work. Donna Pucciani kept coming up over and over again...we could probably do a Donna Pucciani issue. Among others were Elizabeth Kadetsky, Fredrick Zydek, and Dabney Stuart -- I know that because once I put Dabney Stuart's name on the cover and misspelled it. Lones Seiber was another; we published at least two stories by him and they stick with me. Truthfully, what we looked for was stories or poems that just kind of stuck with us, even when I can’t remember authors' names. These were stories like Lones Seiber’s story, "Via Dei", a mystery about the two girls disappearing. There’s another story that just sticks with me forever called “Feeding the Dog”, by Vickie Weaver, which has the voice of a child. There was one story which we use on the website as an example of good fiction, “Life Drawing” by Lucy Jane Bledsoe. Oh my God, that story is everything a story should be. I mean, she’s amazing. And she did it so well and made it look so effortless. So, that’s not a real good question to ask me because I don’t care who writes a story. And boy, one time we had a fairly well-known fiction writer submit a story to us and I turned it down and then Shenandoah took it...oops. But you know I didn’t like the story; sometimes you have famous writers and it just doesn’t work for us. We wanted to have a place, a journal that anyone could pick it up and enjoy reading it. I don’t ever want to reaffirm the stereotypes of the creative writer as navel-gazing, self-absorbed. Even looking at the current senior writing seminar at Roanoke College, none of my students are that person. It’s not a stereotype that holds up and I want to break it down as much as I could.
What place or purpose do you think a literary magazine has in the writing community?
I think it’s something to celebrate good writing and to bring joy into the world. Literary journals are a counter-narrative to all of the garbage that we face: all the political garbage, all the social media garbage, all the fake news garbage, all the crime garbage, all the sort of hate and anger and darkness. I think we should be pushing back against that.
What did you learn during your time as editor?
I learned that there is a lot of good writers out there, a lot of good writers who don’t engage with self-indulgence. I learned that there are some mean writers out there. I learned that grades get in the way of a good education. I learned that it’s not hard to make a website. I learned that you can always do things better. I learned that I’m glad I’m not an administrator because after I would leave those Friday afternoon/evening meetings with students I always felt about as good as I ever felt. Even on a bad day it was a joyous, good time.
Our last question, since it’s the 50th anniversary of the Review do you have any advice for the Review moving forward, or things for the magazine to keep in mind or hold on to?
Break rules. Imagine anything. Find a way to do it. Use sight, use sound. Bring as many other voices in as you possibly can.
Paul Hanstedt is a John P. Fishwick Professor of English at Roanoke College and Director of Pedagogical Innovation and the Teaching Collaborative, He is the recipient of several teaching awards, including a 2013 State Council for Higher Education in Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award and the 2014 CASE-Carnegie Virginia Professor of the Year Award. He is the author of several academic books and HONG KONGED, a travel memoir recounting his year in China with three children under the age of ten.