Rose Himber Howse is a current MFA candidate in fiction at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her nonfiction and interviews have been featured on Dead Darlings, GrubStreet Boston’s site for novelists. She is currently at work on her first novel, The Stones They Broke, a queer Appalachian story. Before pursuing her MFA, she taught high school English and adult literacy.
Evan Fackler: Rose, you’re one of two fiction editors at The Greensboro Review. Do you and Richard [Moriarty, the other editor] usually agree on which stories to publish?
Rose Himber Howse: Generally, yes. Looking at our respective styles as writers, you wouldn’t expect there to be as much overlap in our preferences as there is, and I like to think that’s testament to our general open-mindedness when it comes to a story’s right to dictate its own terms.
We can sometimes be attracted to different things when we’re reading the slush pile, but in these situations, we often make a pretty effective case to the other person for a story that they might have overlooked. It’s funny, actually–occasionally one of us will be championing a story the other has doubts about, and the next day the roles will reverse because we’ve done such a good job convincing each other.
Ultimately, stories with a strong voice tend to stand out for both of us. He’s more of a minimalist, which tends to be a good editorial predilection, and he always appreciates sharp dialogue whereas I can have a tin ear. I’m probably pickier about surprise–I hate when I can predict the next thing that will happen in a story.
EF: When you’re reading through fiction submissions, are there particular things you’re looking for? Specific characteristics or strengths you want to see in a piece for The Greensboro Review?
RHH: People always say that you should read a journal before submitting to get a feel for its style. And while I certainly hope submitters will read The Greensboro Review, I think that the beauty of a journal run by MFA students is that the editors change regularly, which means that personal preferences don’t limit the aesthetic of the journal.
The most obvious form that this sort of bias can take relates to a journal’s orientation toward experimental work, and I can confidently say that The Greensboro Review doesn’t come down on either side of this. If psychological realism and a traditional plot structure aren’t the best way to tell a story, that’s great; if they are, that’s fine too.
Our editorial process is intensive and collaborative. Having conversations with writers about how to edit in service of their vision is my favorite part of the job. Because we do subscribe to this particular process, we’re more willing than some magazines to take a story that might be imperfect yet more memorable and unique than a different, “cleaner” story. When I’m at home chopping onions or something and I find myself still thinking about a character, that’s usually a very strong indicator that I’m going to advocate for that submission.
EF: If you could give some blanket advice to writers based on your experience on the editorial side of things, what would that advice be?
RHH: Put a story in your story! It sounds really obvious, I know. But the most common reason I stop reading is that the opening feels bloated with exposition. That doesn’t mean that the first page needs a high-speed car chase–just that it needs to establish momentum for the story in the present. While it can be realistic for a character to have had a wounding event earlier in life that informs the present action, I’d rather learn about this through its impact on the present than through a frontloading of summary.
Every now and then, there’s a story with a compelling premise, but language that doesn’t excite or invigorate; however, the inverse is much more common: sentences that are stronger individually than the narrative that they make up.
Not that we’re looking for stories that read like action movies. One of my favorite pieces in the last issue, “The Stone Lawn,” is about the interaction between an elderly man and his neighbor over lawn maintenance. It’s very quiet and very interior, and it does make use of flashback. But there’s an incredibly strong sense of underlying tension, and so it really moves.
EF: FAQ: Should I send my erotica to The Greensboro Review?
RHH: Probably not. But never say never? Sex and sensuality are great if they’re in service of a narrative arc. Just please, if you are a man and your protagonist is a woman, don’t have her describe herself the way a catcaller might describe her (i.e.: “I looked down at my bodacious rack”). This has been weirdly common lately!
EF: Last question: let’s say you’re trapped on a desert island by Sycorax, Caliban’s bad-ass witch mother, and the only way off is through a literary barter. What novel or short story collection would you entice Sycorax with in exchange for safe passage off the island?
RHH: This won’t be news to anyone, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. While I think that magical writing doesn’t necessarily need to have a purpose beyond magic itself (for me, enchantment is enough of a reason to read) her collection really taught me how fabulism can be used to delineate emotional truths. I’m thinking in particular of the story “Real Women Have Bodies,” in which women are becoming invisible and nobody cares. It’s almost too obvious, but there’s nothing obvious about the artistry with which it’s executed.
So much of both the horror and the beauty in the collection are inextricable from Machado’s exploration of what it means to be a woman–often a queer woman–in the world. And I’m amazed at the book’s ability to hold those two forces (horror and beauty) in the same hand, acknowledging that they feed each other as much they negate each other. I think Sycorax would agree.
Evan Fackler is a fiction candidate in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. You can find him on Twitter @evanchilli