Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"Instead of Throwing up Our Hands . . . We Asked Ourselves Hard Questions," an Interview With Rachel Thompson

Share |
"Instead of Throwing up Our Hands . . . We Asked Ourselves Hard Questions," an Interview With Rachel Thompson

Rachel Thompson is author of the poetry collection Galaxy and an editor at Room , Canada’s oldest literary journal by and about women. We both attended Simon Fraser University’s The Writer’s Studio program at the same time, where the very compassionate Miranda Pearson mentored our poetry, and Rachel was one of the first poets I ever met. I always had great admiration for her work—elegant in form, addressing the subtleties that underline relationships—so after falling out of touch for a few years it was great to get caught up, discuss the editing process at Room and the FOLD festival.

James Lindsay: You're part of the Room editorial collective. How did you come to this position and what does it entail?

Rachel Thompson: I joined Room magazine's collective in 2010, after submitting an application based on my writing-related education and my experience as a feminist magazine editor. Because our editorial board members rotate as editors, I had the privilege and pleasure to edit issues on mythologies of loss, on crime, and most recently on translation. Since we're a collective, we all have a say in how the magazine is run, and we're all responsible for appointing our volunteer and paid staff, and for setting our priorities each year. Something unique at Room is our editorial board members first-read each submission, which I think sets us apart in an important way—our readers all have an equal say in the governance of the magazine, and most have worked directly on an issue of the magazine. In addition to being on the editorial board and collective, for the past two years, I was Room's managing editor. This meant I coordinated issue editing teams and mentored new members as they climbed what we call our “editorial ladder.” However, I just left the managing editor position in the capable hands of Chelene Knight, so I can take more time for my own writing and projects. I'll stay on as an editorial board member.

JL: You published a collection of poetry, Galaxy , before becoming an editor at Room. What was your experience moving from being the edited to the editor?

RT: I felt really ready and supported as I went from being edited to literary editor. I had some great experience that prepared me. I had been the editor of the Canadian Women's Health Network's journal, so I knew all about production processes and deadlines (and was more than familiar with intersectional feminism). Working with writers was second nature for me at this point because I had picked up great skills at The Writer's Studio at SFU—you were there, so you know what a supportive workshop we had, lead by Miranda Pearson. I also had recently worked with Stan Dragland (at the Banff Centre) on my manuscript, so I knew how to look for the connecting threads between pieces to make an issue that felt whole, rather than cobbled together. He had taught me how to thread the somewhat loosely-related poems I had written over five years into the book that became Galaxy.

Last, but most definitely not least, at Room we mentor our new editors, which meant a more senior editor, Brigid MacAulay, stopped me from embarrassing myself a few times on my first issue.

JL: To be honest, it wasn't until I left The Writers' Studio that I realized how important mentor/editor/peer relationships could be. It took me years to find another group of people I trusted and could work with on that level. What's the editor mentorship process at Room like and why do think it's so important?

RT: The mentoring of editors is central to what Room does. An extension of our mission to publish emerging and diverse writers is our mission is to support a diverse roster of mostly rookie editors. Our editorial board, which is twenty people, rotates responsibility for editing each issue of Room. Every editor goes up what we call our editorial ladder, beginning in an observer role on an issue. The issue editor, assistant editor, and Managing Editor will orient these observers (we call them "shadows") to how Room works. We usually make sure they learn how we differ from other publications and cover specific aspects of literary editing, but we often also orient really green editors to general editorial practices. From there, someone can advance and become an assistant editor, and then an issue editor. Quite often experienced Room editors will join as a shadow an issue to observe and provide mentoring as needed, or will fill the assistant editor role on an issue with an editor doing it for the first time.

Our whole organization works that way, if you have a skill in editorial or marketing or business, you may end up teaching it to our (volunteer) staff or others on the collective—so we all mentor each other. Also, important to note, that as a collective, we all have a say in all policies and set the priorities of the organization—even if someone isn't editing issues as a member of the editorial board (a few hold only a staff position, or are working as a first-reader for submissions).

Our size and our mentoring style make us quite different from a lot of publications, especially publications of our age. And I find this to be our biggest strength because our network—and access to expert knowledge—is vast.

JL: What differences do you find editing poetry opposed to prose?

RT: I find that the poetry we have to pick from for Room is really tight. I usually edit poems with a really light hand, because it's clear the poet has paid so much attention to the line and there's seldom much for me to do in terms of structural edits. It must be because our best poetry contributors are really good at their craft. That and poets pay attention to detail, so they proofread their work well.

With prose we're more concerned with narrative arc and actions and dialogue that make sense within the world the story is based, so we will be more constructive in our feedback. I find prose comes in a little rougher, and we accept pieces with grammatical or structural problems if we think they can be fixed and there's a lot of promise in the story. In fact, I know of several pieces that went on to be celebrated in other ways (awards, picked up for anthologies) after publishing in Room that had structural edits by our editors. For structural changes, by the time we want to accept a story, we'll usually present these to the writer as suggestions for improvement. Because it's presented that way, we've had some really great working relationships with our writers. I love it when a writer sees this as an opportunity. I've heard from many writers who love that we cared enough to work so closely with their text.

JL: You're participating on a panel at the upcoming FOLD festival about publishing more diverse Canadian stories. How do you see the state of diversity in Canadian publishing at the moment? Is it improving? What more can be done?

RT: I'm looking forward to being on the panel so I can learn about the book publishing side of the industry. And as far as the magazine side goes, I know Room. At Room, I've seen us change the diversity makeup of our editorial board, which has meant better visibility and welcoming in particular to writers and artists of colour. The Women of Colour—our current issue—was spearheaded by women of colour on the collective. It is really a threshold moment for Room. Like most lit mags of our age, we historically came from a predominantly white, middle-class, and heteronormative perspective, so the issue calls this out and invites women of colour to talk about the experience of race and being racialized. The reason we could do this was because of the "calling in" that came before it—looking around the table and seeing who wasn't represented in our pages and on our editorial board. Instead of throwing up our hands and claiming we have a meritocracy, or that we blind read submissions, we asked ourselves hard questions, like why aren't more diverse women applying for the collective positions or submitting to the magazine? And then we found we had to seek out those communities and build trust. The response to the Women of Colour issue call for submissions was outstanding—so many submissions came in. It goes to show that if you invite people explicitly to the table, and really do the work to welcome people in, amazing things can happen. Of course, it's a work in progress; we strive make diversity part of our strategic planning each year. Coming up will be a queer-themed issue, an aboriginal issue, and more women of colour editors working on themes that don't have to do with "diversity" explicitly—because that would be ridiculous pigeonholing otherwise.

One thing I can say about the general literary magazine climate is I see it shifting because the funders are asking questions for more diversity from Canadian arts. So, likely that will bring some real change (because—hello!—money). For us at Room we've only seen benefits in terms of expanding our audience and reach, every time we've deliberately worked to increase our diversity.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

You can write to James throughout April at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page