Rachel Lyon has done something many aspire to do: Made a career for herself as both a successful author and editor. Her debut novel, Self-Portrait With Boy, met with critical success, and is currently being developed as a feature film. Meanwhile, Lyon is the Editor-in-Chief at literary journal Epiphany. As part of our Ask the Editor series, Lyon spoke with MFA non-fiction candidate Elena Sheppard about her career path, what it really means to be an Editor-in-Chief, and what everyone who aspires to this kind of role really needs in their arsenal.
I’d love to start by asking you about your road to Epiphany. How did you become EIC of the magazine?
Truly it was a who-you-know sort of situation. I happened to be having lunch with a friend of mine, JT Price, who had just taken on the role of Managing Editor at Epiphany, and I mentioned to him that I was thinking about trying to explore new kinds of work in the literary sphere, outside of teaching. I love teaching, but I’d been doing it a long time—and doing a lot of it!—and felt like I was ready for something new. I’d been the Fiction Editor of Indiana Review when I was in grad school, and I really enjoyed that work. Lo and behold, a few months later JT brought me in for a series of interviews with the board, and eventually they offered me the position.
How would you describe Epiphany to the uninitiated?
Epiphany is an eclectic 15-year-old literary journal based in NYC. Our issues come out twice a year, and they’re very long, regularly more than 200 and often more than 300 pages. We have a strong history not just in English-language poets, fiction writers, and essayists, but also in work by international writers in English translation. I’m proud that we don’t just pay lip service to the idea of publishing both emerging and established writers. On one hand we never rely on solicitations. We always take work from the submissions queue. We hold an annual contest for student writers called the Breakout 8 (the winners of this year’s contest were just announced!). On the other hand, we’ve published superstars like Lydia Davis, Jamel Brinkley, Ed Hirsch, and Patricia Smith; we were the first English-language journal to publish Elena Ferrante.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
I try to set my mornings aside for getting my head screwed on straight. I work on my own writing, I go to the gym, I have coffee with friends. Not usually in that order. Around noon or 12:30 I start answering emails, and taking care of Epiphany-related housekeeping. That will change depending on the time of year. Right now what it means is going through submissions; corresponding with contributors, with JT, my managing editor, with Willard Cook, the publisher of the journal, and sometimes with our interns and/or board; and editing the work that will appear in our Winter Issue.
I’ve found that the part of my brain that wants to write and create and express delicate, half-formed ideas is very different from the more organizational part that’s capable of doing the work of an EIC. The former is vulnerable and volatile. It is born of the unconscious and therefore most alive in the early morning—even before I’ve had coffee. That’s why it gets my morning hours, and I do my managerial and logistical work in the afternoons.
Could you imagine a life in which you were exclusively a writer, or is being an editor also an important part of the writing process for you?
Writing is lonely! Ironically, it’s also all about people. Fiction is, anyway. The subject of most novels is humans and our troubles. If I didn’t have regular contact with other people (and, ideally, their creative work), I would never be exposed to any inspiration outside of my own brain. While I was working on redrafting Self-Portrait With Boy, I worked full-time at a marketing agency. After the book was accepted for publication I went on to teach for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Catapult, and other institutions. So actually, until recently, editorial work has never really been essential to my writing process. But on the other hand I’ve never wanted to isolate. I get a lot out of creative collaboration, whether as an editor, teacher, colleague, or otherwise.
You seem to also be a very active member of the literary community—you run a reading series, you host and attend events—did that sort of just happen or was that a deliberate decision that you made?
These things have sort of just happened. My friend and Ditmas Lit cohost Sarah Bridgins suggested we start a reading series back in 2016. It was all her idea! She used to be a literary agent and she missed having an active role in the literary world. I was game, so we launched it together. As for attending other folks’ events, I enjoy them, so in that way it’s deliberate—one does what one enjoys—but I have to admit I don’t make it to nearly as many as I wish I could.
You have an MFA from Indiana University; how would you say your MFA helped (or didn’t help!) your career as a writer?
I have gotten a great deal of pleasure and a few professional opportunities out of the evolving relationships I’ve maintained with various teachers and members of my cohort after school. Unrelated to the nuts and bolts of my career, I also grew a lot as a writer while I was in school.
MFA or NYC?
Here’s what I always tell my students. Me, personally, I was a good little student. I was self-directed enough, but I wasn’t going to believe in myself without someone else’s permission. It may sound a bit sad, but it’s true: I went to grad school because I needed a Stamp of Approval from an Authority who would tell me I was a Real Writer. And it worked. I walked away with that stamp—in the form of some encouraging words from my peers and teachers and—importantly—a small but irritating amount of student loan debt. That debt, it made me feel like, okay, if I’m going into debt for this, I’d better call myself a writer, because what else do I have to show for myself? That’s how it worked for me. The MFA and its cost gave me the permission I needed, on a personal level, to grow artistically and take creative risks and trust that it wasn’t arrogant at best or insane at worst to call myself a writer. Here’s the important part, though: not everybody needs that. If you’re not someone who needs that, if you’re one of those magical people who’s not only totally self-directed but who is also capable of believing in yourself without some authority telling you it’s okay, or without buying yourself that permission, if you can find yourself a writing community and cultivate heroes and role models and mentors without feeding the literary industrial complex, my feeling is, do it that way.
Did you ever almost throw in the towel on a career in the literary world? Were you ever like, forget it, I’ll be a lawyer? And if so, what brought you back to your craft?
Oh sure, totally. Not only have I wanted to be other things; I’ve been other things. Back in my early 20s I worked at an art gallery and printmaking studio. I interned very briefly with an acupuncturist. I worked as an elementary school teacher. I toyed with the ideas of med school and law school (n.b.: those ideas are very serious; they’re not toys). I worked at a small poetry publisher and at the aforementioned marketing agency. I’ve just always wanted to keep writing stories. Honestly if you’re not someone who writes in their spare time, you’re just not a writer. (Although, on the other hand, there’s no guarantee that if you are someone who writes in their spare time, you are a writer.)
So many people want to break into the editing world but don’t know where to begin. Where would you say are some good entry points?
Do they? Why? Just kidding. I’d suggest starting by volunteering to read for a literary journal. Nearly all journals rely heavily on volunteer readers, and we are very grateful to them. There are dozens if not hundreds of lit journals in NYC alone, and we all welcome emails from eager editors-to-be.
And what about for writers, what is your biggest piece of advice for writers looking to get their work published in Epiphany or elsewhere?
Proofread your work. The most amateurish mistake you can make is sending in work that is filled with little errors like verb-noun disagreements or they’re/their/there/it’s/its mistakes. The second-most amateurish mistake is addressing your cover letter to the wrong journal or a member of the editorial staff that no longer works there. Big picture, I’d say: Send your work out far and wide. Each story can go to, say, eight journals at a time. Keep a submissions spreadsheet so you can submit (and withdraw) work responsibly. Unless you have an agent doing submissions for you, ignore the journals that don’t take simultaneous submissions. And write hard enough, relentlessly enough, with enough verve and spirit, that you are really able to believe in your work, so that when one of your pieces inevitably gets rejected you’re able just to spin around and submit to the next damn journal on your list.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
It is the best thing in the world to encounter a piece I really love and be able to say, Yes, this, this is it, this is going to inspire people, and maybe even offer up a few edits that will clarify its essential excellence, and then usher it into print.
Lastly, what would you say are three characteristics that all Editors-in-Chief need to possess?
Rigor, curiosity, and a growing, highly personal inventory of inviolable rules for what makes for good literature and what makes for shlock.