Sarah Munroe and Kat Saunders worked as graduate assistants at West Virginia University Press while earning MFA degrees in creative writing from the WVU English department, and both have gone on in publishing—Sarah at Temple University Press, where she is an acquisitions editor, and Kat at Kent State University Press, where she is an assistant editor. In this conversation, conducted over Google Chat, they talk about how their time at West Virginia University informs their publishing work.
Sarah: I don’t know about you, but I miss West Virginia University Press. It was so chill. And the little house with the sheep.
Kat: I do too! Although I don’t miss the dead mice in the walls—only downside to that old farmhouse. What was your favorite project you worked on?
Kat: I worked on the reprint of Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead, which featured a new introduction by Catherine Venable Moore. It was a stunning essay. And I loved how Rukeyser wound research through her poetry.
Sarah: That book is so pretty! I need to get a copy. I’m so glad they put that out and so sad I missed being a part of it—but I’m glad you got to work with it. I did developmental editing on the introduction to the beer book, and I think that’s where I saw some of the MFA workshopping skills come directly into play. Also, some of the same skills that I used in teaching English 101—asking the same basic questions of the intro that I told my students to ask about their writing about order of information: what’s necessary and important and interesting, and why?
Kat: Oh, I totally agree. I’m actually doing a freelance developmental edit, and it is definitely where I feel most comfortable as an editor. Precisely because I’m using the skills we honed in hours of workshop.
Sarah: That’s exactly how I sold myself for this job! I have three years of highly developed close reading skills and the ability to constructively critique while being kind to the author.
Kat: And being kind is so important! We all ultimately have the same goal: to publish something we’re proud of. And our MFA program was so congenial that workshops were the same way. We all wanted each other to be the best writers we could be.
Sarah: Exactly! As much as talk of “audience” was repetitive in teacher training and in our classes, it’s actually super helpful in working with authors, especially those who are trying to turn dissertations into books. They had to write for a super small and specialized audience who were looking for certain things, and to translate that for a new and wider audience, even if still academic, takes a lot of work and thought. There’s a narrative component, or just the idea of an arc, that has to happen in a book that doesn’t have to happen in a dissertation.
Kat: Yes, exactly.
Sarah: I think just relaying those considerations of arc and throughline and audience is so helpful for young academics.
Kat: That actually seems to be a critique I see the most when looking at peer reviews for our books.
Sarah: Same! You mentioned that your boss specifically wanted you because of your MFA. Do you know why?
Kat: Well she has an MFA in creative nonfiction, so I know that informs her approach to her work as the director. At the time, our press had been without a marketing person for quite some time, and I do help our marketing and sales director write copy for our catalogs. We also frequently partner with our poetry center on campus, and I especially find I get to use my MFA skills when I’m working on a manuscript with them.
Sarah: Oh fun! Yes, that’s the great thing about learning to be a good reader and writer—the skills are applicable in lots of different ways.
Kat: I agree! I know you mentioned the knowledge you gained from the MFA in your interview, but are there other ways you find you get to use your work as a poet in your role as an editor?
Sarah: Poetry gave me a close attention to language and construction that has made me a more thoughtful and (sometimes) precise writer, more considered in what I’m doing and why. Sometimes we looked at a poem and asked why it had to be a poem (sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t), and I think the same question can be asked of various types of projects in publishing, especially when it comes to open access or augmenting a book project with an online component—what form suits the material best? I took two nonfiction workshops too, and those have been helpful—we rarely publish memoirs here, but I get a lot of proposals for them. It’s much easier to evaluate them with that background.
Sometimes we looked at a poem and asked why it had to be a poem (sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t), and I think the same question can be asked of various types of projects in publishing.
Kat: Yes, and I think the way Kevin Oderman ran his workshops made me such a better reader and writer. The things we spoke about: content, form, connection to the reader, etc. Those are things we constantly consider in publishing. But he also helped me at the line-level too. I became a much cleaner writer after his class.
Sarah: You mentioned in a previous conversation that you knew you didn’t want to use the MFA to teach. Did you know you wanted to get back into publishing (since you had done some work in that before), and why acquisitions?
Kat: Actually, I’m hoping to do more acquisitions work in the future. Right now, I’d say I balance manuscript editorial, some marketing, and then often the somewhat random work that comes up with a less clear workflow. It’s nice because I do a little of everything. Long-term, though, I do see myself working more in acquiring projects. I’ve worked for several literary journals, and I enjoyed reading and soliciting submissions. It makes me feel good to give someone a platform for their work. I see connections between the work I did as an editor with aspects of literary publishing, which I know a little bit about as both a writer and an editor. To get back to your original question, though, I just feel like the best teachers have passion and are selfless with their time. After teaching freshman comp for four years, I just recognized that wasn’t me. I doubt I was a good teacher because I just never had that drive. Grading always stressed me out, and I suffered from imposter syndrome. Who was I to tell these students if their papers were good or not? And I just wasn’t a fan of tallying absences or badgering students about missed work.
Sarah: That’s so true as well, making the connection to the literary journals. We were both involved with Cheat River Review at WVU, which gave additional practice in being able to evaluate work and articulate how a piece does or doesn’t fit with the aesthetic/brand/goals/mission/vision of the journal the same way that we have to do now for manuscripts—presenting them to editorial teams and to the board, being able to sell them. And yet, wresting material from authors and reviewers is sometimes not dissimilar from wrangling it from students.
Kat: That is an excellent point!
Sarah: And it might have the potential to be great, but it’s not there yet—knowing when you can invest time and energy and knowing when to pass is tricky. Speaking of “knowing,” there’s so much I don’t know, and I should probably replace it with “guessing.”
Kat: Yeah, I think that accounts for how subjective the work we do can be.
Sarah: When I went to my first conference I was imagining running into someone or having to share a booth with someone who had applied to my job. I was trying to come up with an answer for them if they had asked, “You? Why did you get the job?”
Kat: What response did you come up with?
Sarah: I asked a friend who is in the field, and she said, “you’re a good reader and writer and you have publishing experience, and you’re fun, which is most of the job (making people think you’re fun).” It seemed like a very obvious and straightforward answer and also illustrates the tendency to sell myself, and those skills, short. Like, an MFA isn’t enough, I’m not an expert with a PhD. But reading and writing are skills, and they’re marketable if you’re willing to engage in a certain amount of salesmanship—which, it turns out, is a lot of the work of publishing, but somehow I thought it was only the job of marketing. In order to publish a book that you’re proud of and advance those voices that you want to make heard, you need to be able to sell them. How do you see imposter syndrome coming up for you?
Kat: All of those things your friend said are true of you and exactly the kinds of qualities I’d want in a coworker! The salesmanship thing is hard. I’m not great at networking, but I’m getting better. I used to go to conferences like the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and feel really out of place, like a child at some fabulous dinner party. When I got the invitation for my first interview, our director told me that 173 people applied for my job. Like you, I just couldn’t really fathom that I was the person they chose. What really made me the right person? Was I?
And I’d never worked a “normal” full-time job before. I spent most of my twenties in grad school, and I think there’s a way in which people dismiss academia as something outside of “real life” and I really wish people—including me—would stop doing that.
I think there’s a way in which people dismiss academia as something outside of “real life” and I really wish people—including me—would stop doing that.
Sarah: Hmm, that’s interesting. For me, grad school didn’t feel like “real life.” It was a three-year break between 9–5 jobs. Yes, you are the right person! And another skill you have is your ability to adapt and multitask and pick up lots of different skills, which is one of the perks of working at a small press. Also being fun to work with. But the 9–5 definition of real life is setting a “normal” that a lot of people don’t live, and academia can be more consuming than a job you go to for a set number of hours and then leave. Grading, reading, writing, committees, research, all of that happens constantly outside of the set 40-hours-a-week parameters—if anything, it’s more integrated into life than a 9–5 job or integrated in a different way. You’ve made me aware of my 9–5/real-life normative language and thinking!
Kat: That’s very true about academic work never really having a break during the school year. I no longer get panicked emails from students at 2 a.m., for one. And that has vastly improved my work-life balance.
Sarah: Haha. I find I take editorial work home with me more than I’ve done with any other job. There’s endless reading. And I’m still new, so I’m still learning the best way to do things, etc.
Kat: Yes, I still find that too, and I just celebrated my one-year anniversary here. How long have you been at your job?
Sarah: 2.5 months.
Kat: I feel like they are so lucky to have you!
Sarah: Thank you, and I feel absolutely that Kent is lucky to have you too!