The Rumpus Interview with Becky Tuch
Becky Tuch wears a lot of hats. The oldest and most well-worn is probably the “writer” hat. Now that she is nearing completion on two different manuscripts, a novel, and a story collection, there’s a good chance that a lot of people will encounter her name on the cover of a book jacket sometime in the near future. But for the moment, she is more likely to generate buzz due to her brainchild The Review Review, the online resource she founded in 2008 to address a painful scarcity of information available to working writers. Today, under Tuch’s leadership, The Review Review publishes thoughtful and informative profiles of literary journals spanning the gamut from experimental to traditional. The site is a crucial tool for the writer who feels overwhelmed by the sheer number of journals being published. In fact, it has become so popular that Tuch was recently able to hire staff members to help operate it.
It was The Review Review that drew my attention and eventually published my own “review” of a New York-based literary magazine. But even before this happened, I couldn’t help but be charmed by the exuberant, funny, and highly intelligent voice behind the popular email newsletter bearing the name of The Review Review. This, of course, was the voice of Becky Tuch. She took a short break from a demanding teaching schedule and from caring for her infant daughter to talk with me via email about motherhood, creativity, the future of literary magazines, and how to find inspiration in a child’s innocence.
The Rumpus: Given all that you do, I can only imagine how busy you are. So thanks for your time! Can you start by telling us what’s going on in your life right now?
Becky Tuch: Perhaps the best picture of what’s going on in my life is a picture of what’s going on in my living room. At present, we’ve got two activity mats (one with music, one without), a jolly jumper thingy, a folded-up stroller, a car seat, a dozen bottles of vitamins (they make good rattles), an exercise ball, an inflatable duck bathtub, a bouncer, and about a million bits of crackers scattered about. And that’s just the floor! Four stacks of lit mags still in envelopes (waiting to be sent out to reviewers) are sitting on the radiator. This year’s Best American Short Stories is on a table next to a pile of stuffed animals and toys. My own collection of interlinked stories, which I am due to revise and send to my agent, sits among other books and magazines whose covers have been torn off. And a half-packed suitcase stands near the door. I just got back from New York and we’re headed to France next week. Oh yeah, and somewhere amidst all the papers and piles and props, my almost-crawling eight-month-old daughter is eating a banana.
Rumpus: Sometimes you just get a craving for crackers; I totally understand. Is France a recreational or professional voyage?
Tuch: My partner’s family lives in Provence, so we will be visiting them. It’s purely recreational, though of course, as a writer, isn’t everything somewhat professional too? This morning, for instance, I full-on yelled at my partner regarding baby-related stuff. And even as I was in the midst of my rant, some part of me was aware of what excellent dialogue this was. I don’t think writers have the luxury of distinguishing between recreation and work. Life is work is life.
Rumpus: So “writer” is just one of your hats. What other hats do you wear, and how do you juggle all of these different roles? Do you wear one hat at a time, or all of them at once?
Tuch: Ha. I’m pretty sure my daughter has chewed up every one of my hats, leaving them all tattered and frayed at the edges.
So, obviously Mom is the humongous sombrero I’m sporting most often these days. But also, I oversee The Review Review, which is a website I founded in 2008, dedicated to helping writers navigate the world of literary magazines. I also write fiction and nonfiction. I teach, mostly online courses, through Grub Street in Boston and Creative Nonfiction in Pittsburgh, where I live. And I do manuscript consultations for writers.
Rumpus: I’d like to touch on that fantastic resource, The Review Review, but first maybe you can talk about your own writing. How did your story collection come about?
Tuch: These are stories I’ve been developing, off and on, for over ten years. Some are the first stories I began writing when I came out of college. The more I learn about the craft, and about myself, the more I develop them and add new material. It’s only recently that I began to see a narrative shape among all the stories, to see the potential for a gathered body of work. What I’m doing now (or hope to be doing soon, when I have more time for writing) is to bring each story up to its highest level through deep revision.
Rumpus: In terms of the current publishing environment, I think it’s fair to say that a story collection is an uncommon way to debut. Do you have advice for unpublished authors who are shopping around a story collection, as opposed to a novel?
Tuch: Yes, story collections are hard to sell. I have a novel in the works too, so that’s probably a more realistic debut for me. If you do want to debut with stories, I think small presses are the way to go. My friend Clare Beams will be debuting with a story collection from Lookout Books this fall. That press has done a stunning job with her book. Another friend, Aubrey Hirsch, debuted with a story collection through a press here in the Pittsburgh area, Braddock Avenue Books, also a fantastic publisher. Many writers have had success this way. I’ve seen other friends have success this way. So many small presses are doing extraordinary work, picking up the slack from mainstream publishers who have become increasingly conservative and risk-averse.
Rumpus: The Review Review, the online resource you founded in 2008, is in a league of its own. I’ve used it to research journals myself, and I know many other writers who do too. It’s pretty vital in today’s literary landscape. Could you have ever predicted such a serendipitous outcome when you started The Review Review?
Tuch: Thank you! I’m delighted to hear this! I have to say, there was something about the project that felt totally right to me from the very beginning. I had the idea while I was waiting tables one day, and the more I talked about it, the more others got excited too. Of course, some people warned me against it (too much work, too much of a distraction, etc.). But I didn’t listen to any negativity, just went full steam ahead, trusting my instincts all the way. Pretty much as soon as I began working on the site, I found people who were able to help me. Friends helped with website development, the logo, the conception, the technology. A whole lot of editors chimed in to show support, to send lit mags for review. Writers came out of the woodwork to contribute time, ideas, content.
When you have so many people eager to be part of something, there is no space to wonder about an endeavor’s success or failure. You move with the current. And, of course, even though there is so much more I want to do with the site, and so much more I want to give back to the literary community, I am beyond thrilled at what I—what we—have created.
Rumpus: How has The Review Review evolved, and do you see it evolving in a particular direction in the future?
Tuch: Most recently, I’ve changed our “Publishing Tips” column, which was a space where I would post new advice about publishing each week, into a “View on Publishing” column, where folks write about issues and concerns in lit mag and indie publishing. This might seem trivial, but it is emblematic of something vital happening in the literary world, where people are addressing urgent issues like sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, etc. It is important to me that our site holds space for these ideas, as I’ve always wanted the site to be a forum for meaningful conversation.
The weekly newsletter has also become insanely popular. That is something that has totally taken me aback. In 2010 I had one hundred and fifty subscribers. Now I have over five thousand! I took a month off writing it after I had my baby. I planned to actually take three months off. But I was getting constant emails like, “Where’s the newsletter?” “I need the newsletter!” Someone actually posted on Twitter that when The Review Review newsletter didn’t show up in her inbox each week, she “couldn’t breathe right.” Talk about pressure! This is something I could have never predicted, but which is just, well, awesome.
Lately I’ve been able to hire a few people, which feels really good, to be able to create jobs in an industry where paid work is so hard to come by. Also, we have more reviewers getting involved all the time, and they are so talented! It is wonderful to see a reviewer bringing all their analytical and creative skills to bear on a read of a single issue of one lit mag; we’re getting more high quality reviews all the time.
At some point in the future, I want to upgrade the site. I was told recently that the site looked “so 2010.” Ugh. We need to adapt to mobile devices, clean up some old buttons still lingering from the original design, and generally make it snazzier and razzle-dazzier (to use very technical terminology).
Rumpus: That comment is so funny, and also scary. Do you think technology is fundamentally changing the way people read, or even the way they perceive narrative?
Tuch: I think that in recent years, for better or for worse, reading has become a much more communal activity. I just bought a Kindle. One of the most interesting—and to my mind, most annoying—features is the “highlight,” which shows you when a particular line has been highlighted by lots of other people. It’s unnerving. I’ll be engrossed, reading along with my particular interests and concerns, and all of a sudden I’ll be notified that a particular line has been highlighted by 137 people. Am I supposed to pay particular attention to that line? Because others noted it? I’m quite wary of aesthetic coercion. I don’t necessarily like knowing what other people value in a book, especially when I don’t know who those other people are.
Still, the prominence of the reader’s voice is one defining trait of our digital reading experience. And of course there are many positive aspects of this. Readers today expect to be able to comment on articles, often to be heard as much as if not more than a piece’s original writer. And if that is impossible for some reason, readers will find other ways to get their views read, via social media and/or book reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, etc.. In fact, those reviews have tremendous power in the industry, arguably greater power than book reviews in magazines and newspapers.
That readers have found ways to express their views, to be seen and heard, and even to become part of the original text to some degree, has made reading and writing a much more porous act. I think today’s readers are much more openly involved in the process of reading itself, both interpreting and even shaping a work’s meaning.
Rumpus: You mentioned community and the conversation that’s happening online. You’re in a unique position at the helm of The Review Review. You kind of get a bird’s eye view of what’s happening in the field of literary journals, both big and small. Do you see the role of lit mags changing in our fast-paced world of media overload?
Tuch: Lit mags are working hard to keep up with the changes in the way content is presented. Or, to rephrase that, very often lit mags are defining how content is presented.
But more than media innovation, I see lit mags as being at the forefront of the conversation around diversity in publishing. There is a reason VIDA did their count in both mainstream commercial journals as well as literary magazines—because what gets published there matters. I see the role of lit mags evolving to tackle thorny issues surrounding race, gender identity, class, etc. in ways that other magazines don’t even come close to addressing, and, unless I’m mistaken, with a commitment and urgency that is entirely new, entirely of this time.
Rumpus: What’s your advice for editors of up-and-coming literary journals who want to make a splash in this difficult media environment?
Tuch: I know lots of people disagree with me on this, but I’m of the belief that there are simply too many literary journals. I’ve had this debate with editors who say there are never too many. The more the better! More space for writers! More opportunities! But do lit mags out there now really need more competition for readership? Do lit mags need even greater competition for resources, i.e. grant funding, reader donations, etc.? While some editors disagree with me here, others have agreed wholeheartedly, citing decreased readership and subscriptions as the result of an overcrowded market.
I think starting a lit mag is a great thing to do. Writers gain editorial experience, which is important both in terms of making you a better writer and also understanding what editors do, how busy they get, how much repetition in submissions they see, and so on. Editing a lit mag also puts you in contact with language in a new way, which can be thrilling. And of course, there are many phenomenal, stunning, brand new lit mags which have added so much to the literary world, which truly seem indispensable, in spite of having sprung up just recently.
So, I would never say, do not start a journal. But I will say, study what’s already out there. Read other lit mags. Ask yourself what’s new that you’re bringing to an already saturated market. Ask yourself what you’re going to give writers and readers that is unique, that is necessary.
Also, so important: Ask yourself if you really want to take this project on for at least the next five years. I think if you create a magazine, you have a responsibility to writers. It’s so sad to see a mag go bust, along with the work that was published there, after a short time. So, how will you sustain this project financially? How will you sustain it emotionally, putting in the time and the work even when you do not want to, when it takes time away from other important aspects of your life?
I think anyone who is ready to throw down all they’ve got to start a lit mag will find a way—and should find a way!—to do so. I’m just offering some cautionary questioning. If you want it, go for it! Find mentors in the field. Create a handful of mags you want to emulate, then shine your own light. Show gratitude to your writers, whether that’s in the form of payment, readings, marketing, or whatever you can provide. Show gratitude to your fellow editors by subscribing to/buying lit mags, going to readings they organize, spreading the word about the great work they do and authors they publish. Those editors have paved the path before you, so acknowledge their tremendous work. Then, carve your own path.
Rumpus: How has motherhood changed you, and what are its influences on your work?
Tuch: Motherhood has entirely shifted the contents of my mind. Writers truck in abstraction. We live in the world of the imagined, the envisioned.
Being with a baby all day is just the opposite. There is no room for abstraction. Every moment is lived experience. My mind now is a constant ticker tape of NapsDiapersFoodMilkWipesCuddlesKissesTicklesBoobsSleepClothesSmilesTearsBedtime. Carry the stroller onto the bus. Heave the bag over your shoulder. Lug the car seat out the door. Bring the baby up the stairs. Do I have enough of…? When was her last…? how long until her next…? Should I check her…? What time should I…? Did I forget to…?
As for how this all affects my work, in addition to the concreteness of the day-to-day, I’m continually inspired by the realness of my daughter (and babies, in general). In my writing life, I have worked so flipping hard to make flatness come alive, to create life from mere words. And then, here is this creature, so dynamic, so alive, so constantly herself. So very much in her essence, every day, moment to moment.
Plus, there are so many stories! Before becoming a mother, I had no concept of the multifarious forms of maternal experience–the early struggles with sleep, breastfeeding, physical recovery after birth, the vast array of emotions, and so on. Every single mother I know has had a unique experience of childbirth as well as adapting to life with a child, and every one of these experiences is a fascinating and complex story that should be told.
Then too there are the stories born from daily life with my daughter. A quick anecdote: Last week we were at the library. An older boy, maybe 10 or so, was playing with his baby brother, maybe 15 months. The younger boy fell, hitting his head on the floor–a loud thunk that could be heard from across the room. The baby instantly began wailing. But his mother did not come for him. The older brother was trying desperately and awkwardly to comfort him, as the baby wailed violently for his mother.
Finally, the mother came over (she’d been at the nearby computer terminal). She held the baby for a few minutes, soothed him, but before he was calm she passed him back to the older brother, and said, “He’ll be fine. Just watch him.”
The baby was clearly not fine, and continued to wail for a good while after that. Soon the older brother started singing to him: the most heartbreaking rendition of ABC’s I’ve ever heard in my life.
This happened last week and I cannot stop thinking about it. What was the mother doing that made her unavailable to her crying son? (And I mean this without judgement. I mean, quite literally, what was she doing? Was she applying for a job? Working on getting some important documents filled out? Trying to finish a test for a school of some sort?) And oh, the responsibility placed on that older boy! The burden on his face, the fear, the visible concern for his younger brother. What will become of him? How do moments like this add up to shape a life?
I tell this story because it’s stuff I see every day, now that I’m immersed in the world of kids, babies, and parents (mostly moms). There is so much heartbreak, and extremes of love, of tenderness, so much crying and so many different kinds of crying, and a million ways of laughing. So much complexity in a world that previously, from afar, once appeared very simple to me.
The emotions in this world are intense and, ultimately, the essence of what drives character–our early experiences of separation anxiety, attachment, love and abandonment. If you are a fiction writer and you are interested in what shapes people and the nuances of relationships, I think you cannot help but be fascinated by these rich moments.
Sometimes, in terms of material, hanging out with my daughter feels like I’m swimming in literary gold…Now all I need is the time to write it all down!
The Rumpus: Have you started reading children’s books with your daughter? Any recommendations?
Tuch: We’ve been reading Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes at bedtime, which pretty much turns me into a weepy mess every night, in spite of having read it at least a hundred times. Otherwise, I’ve been hard-pressed to find board books I like, books which are not just a list of words and colors and shapes. I like a good plot! It doesn’t matter anyway. Lately, whatever book I try to read to my daughter, she just wants to eat.