Elizabeth Bachinsky

ELIZABETH-BACHINSKY-nov2013-800x450Interview by Nicole Boyce

Elizabeth Bachinsky is the Editor of EVENT Magazine, an award-winning journal published out of Douglas College in its 42nd year of publication. Bachinsky is the author of five collections of poetry. Her work has been nominated for the Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. Her second collection, Home of Sudden Service, was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry. She is a graduate of UBC’s MFA Creative Writing program and a creative writing instructor at Douglas College.

I spoke to her on the phone, as she was—in typical multitasking style—en route to a meeting of EVENT’s fiction board. She was delightfully friendly, funny and candid.

How did you become interested in literary magazine editing?

I’ve always been interested in magazine editing. I had a friend not long ago who sent me a copy of a literary magazine that I edited in high school called Free Word. It was just a little photocopied pamphlet that we were publishing at Thomas Haney Secondary in Maple Ridge. I had totally forgotten that I’d ever done that, but I did, and I was also involved in the yearbook, that kind of stuff. I wanted to be a publisher for a long, long time. Even when I was a little kid, I’d rewrite fairytales and draw pictures with them and put them in laminated covers and staple them. But I didn’t start doing it for money, like, as a “job-job,” until I worked at PRISM international. I was the Assistant Editor there, then the Poetry Editor.

Do you find that your experience working at PRISM has been relevant to your work at EVENT?

Yeah, it was great! It was the first time I’d ever worked with a team, making editorial decisions, so that was really valuable and I learned a lot. All the grant writing and administrative stuff that you have to do as an editor, I got my first taste doing that at PRISM. It’s also a great way to start because they had four editors, so we were able to share the labour in a way that was reasonably manageable, although it felt unmanageable at the time. [Laughs] I can see now that that it was actually a great deal. Now I’m the editor of EVENT, and I share that duty with our Managing Editor Ian Cockfield, so it’s just the two of us. And of course we have a very large team of volunteers and genre editors and proofreaders and copy editors.

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve discovered while working in literary magazine publishing?

I don’t think it’s surprising, but I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in my time as an editor is that change takes time. And one of the things I really believe is that writers deserve to be paid for their work. At EVENT Magazine, we don’t have the best rates going, but we’ve got rates. Everyone who works for us or volunteers for us has some sort of compensation for their time. That includes our interns who get course credit for their internship duties. Because we’ve got these values, it takes a really long time to get projects finished, because you have to apply for funds to pay people. Sometimes that can take years. We’ve got this new website coming down the pipe that has been four years in the making, and it’s interesting to see how long it takes for those changes to actually happen. So patience, I think, is the most valuable lesson I’ve learned in working for literary magazines. Having the patience to stick it out and to see projects through to their completion, even when it seems like, “Oh my god, it’s gonna take forever!” [Laughs]

In addition to being Editor of EVENT, you’re an internationally published poet, having published five books of poetry since becoming involved with EVENT in 2005. How do you think your experiences at EVENT may have impacted your own writing?

I had lunch with my publisher Silas White last week and he said, “Liz, when I get your books they’re pretty much done.” I think that probably has to do with my work as an editor, because I do spend a lot of time making sure poems are finished. Maybe that’s good, maybe that’s bad, maybe that’s neither—but I guess I give pretty clean copy.

Do you think the style of your work has been influenced by the reading you’ve done as an editor?

I do get a unique chance to look at what people are interested in, what they’re making, and where my own poetry would fit in. I don’t think that determines what I write, but it certainly helps me understand what other people are doing.

Are you working on anything right now?

I’m working on a piece about fashion for Room Magazine. It’s for their 35th anniversary. I think they asked me because my first publication was with them.

In addition to working as an editor, you’re also an instructor at Douglas College. How do you balance that workload with your work as a writer?

It’s really hard. Editor, teacher, writer: it’s like having three careers. And it’s really, really, really not manageable. [Laughs] Definitely the one part that suffers is the creative life, because we use a different part of our brains for editorial than we do for creative work. I feel like I’ve got this really developed critical side to my brain, and I’d like to spend more time creating.

Do you work on certain projects on certain days, or just work on things as they come?

It’s like feast or famine. I’m a priorities-based decision maker, so I make a lot of lists. If I’m getting to a place where I’m like, “Holy smokes, there’s a lot here,” I’ll make a list of all the things that have to happen, and then I’ll number them by priority, like, “What’s the thing that is now.” After everything’s done I’ll lose the list, and then eight months later I’ll find it again and everything will be crossed off.

That’s got to be a good feeling.

It is a good feeling! And I literally can’t believe it. When a magazine happens I’m like, “Oh wow, it happened!”

Do you feel a sense of relief when an issue is done?

No! [Laughs] No, because we’re always working at least an issue ahead, so it never ends. I’m always going, “What’s next, what’s next,” and that’s a good attitude, I think. You know who taught me that attitude, Peggy Thompson at UBC. A book would come out, and she’d be like, “What’s next?” You’ve got to keep moving; you’ve got to be like a shark, man. A shark will die if it stops moving.

One of the things I enjoy about EVENT is that it publishes a large variety of voices and styles, rather than one particular type of writing. The magazine describes itself as seeking “the very best in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction,” so I was wondering: How do you know when you’re reading the very best?

You’ve just got to hope. [Laughs] As you said, we publish fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and each of those streams has a different genre editor and team. For example, right now I’m going to our fiction board meeting, where we have this amazing first reader Jane Fairbanks. Often what will happen is that [the Fiction Editor] Christine Dewar and I will go through the fiction submissions and we’ll do a first cull. At this point we’ll send them off to Jane, and Jane’s such an astute reader; I love her comments, they’re wonderful. Everything goes through Jane, and then it goes back to Christine, and Christine whittles it down, and then we meet as a board and we discuss it. So we’ve got lots of really keen, shrewd eyes on these stories, and by the time they get to our board, they’re pretty amazing. I have five stories in my bag right now, and I think three of them are great. So that’s a high return. And we get great material! We’re known for having excellent fiction in particular. I did the math, and I think we’re number one or number two in the whole country in the past ten years for winning gold or silver for fiction at the National Magazine Awards. It’s amazing! We’re just this little team. So it works out. And you just know when you’re reading something that’s really top notch, it’s so obvious—they shine.

Both you and Poetry Editor Gillian Jerome are members of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts, an organization which aims to “promote and foster equity and equality of representation in the Canadian literary community,” and EVENT strives to “reflect the diversity of the reading and writing community [it] serve[s].” Can you please speak a bit about how EVENT strives to reflect diversity when selecting reviews, reviewers, and creative work?

Well, it is a challenge with our magazine because we are so small. We run, I think, 28 to 30 reviews a year. And the people who read our magazine are far and wide—they are all across the country. So striving to serve the community who reads us is a challenge. But we do our best to shake it up and keep it new. We end up reviewing a lot of small press books because we find there’s a lot of people publishing with small presses whose voices don’t normally get heard. And I will say that I’m not above looking at a demographic and saying, “You know what? There are not enough women in our pages.” With women, and women of colour in particular, it can be difficult. How do you find people? And here’s an answer: You find writers who are different from you by reaching out to people and creating actual relationships. I think that goes back to that long-term view; these relationships take a long time. They take a long time and you have to make an effort.

So in that case you would solicit work, if there’s an issue with underrepresentation?

Yes, we do solicit work. Again, particularly from women. I said awhile back on Facebook, “Hey, you know what never happens? Women writers never send me a little email telling me what they’re up to.” Fairly frequently, men will email me directly and be like, “I’m working on these poems—maybe you want to take a look.” I think in all my years as a Poetry Editor and Editor, I can count on one hand the number of times women have done that. So after posting that, I did get a flurry of submissions. We always try a little harder to get women out of the woodwork.

Every editor’s job involves, in some way, working with writers to prepare their pieces for publication. How much do you usually work with writers to revise pieces before they’re published?

I’m not a super hands-on editor. Often the pieces we’re working with are very close to being ready. So I don’t make a lot of suggested changes to stories and poems, but I do make some. The one instance where I do work with authors more is for the yearly Notes on Writing issue. I solicit all those pieces, and then I work with the authors. I find that the most hands-on part of that process is actually getting the writers to a place where they can produce a piece. You’ve got to make sure you give them enough time, and that you’re careful with them, because writers are funny, you know? If they’re working on a piece, and it’s not going as well as they might like, and you start messing around with them too much…they’re skittish, they could just run away. [Laughs] So gently, gently. That’s how I work.

What advice would you give to writers who are interested in submitting to EVENT?

Follow our submission guidelines online. We’re pretty honest there, so go to our website, check them out. Be patient. We have a pretty good turnaround time right now, about 2 to 3 months, so that’s pretty great. If it’s taking longer for us to get back to you, that’s probably a good sign—it means it’s in our system and we’re reading it. And if it doesn’t work out, have hope—submit again! You’ve just got to keep submitting and keep writing.

Can you tell me about a challenge you’ve faced during your time as Editor?

Well, we had a tragedy, [and one of our editors had to leave for awhile]. That was really challenging because we have a production schedule and it’s a pretty delicate system, and if a major part of that system is removed it’s like, holy smokes—what do you do? So that was challenging. But we did okay. We brought in a pinch hitter to get the grants through, and simplified our operations for the summer. Basically we stopped reading manuscripts for a few months, and that gave us some grace to get things done with a skeleton crew. I have to say, our team is so amazing; everybody pulled together and we did really well.

How would you describe the atmosphere at the EVENT office?

[Laughs] Bemused? Perhaps bemused. I mean, there have been times where it’s been like, “Holy crap it’s stressful!” but I think more than anything there’s a sense of good humour and bemusement, because it isn’t life or death, it’s just a magazine. As writers in particular, we’re so sensitive, and I get it: people are sending stuff to us and some hearts get broken and that is serious. That’s tough. But having a good sense of humour is one of the best bits of advice I can give.

Do you have any other advice for writers dealing with rejection?

Yep—next! Next! That’s it. Because there’s nothing you can do to change that, and that stuff can actually kill you. It has the power to stop you. And the truth is, you don’t know why somebody couldn’t use your piece. There are so many factors. Maybe they had room for three stories in their magazine, and there were ten stories about summer camps, and yours was one of them. You don’t know. You really don’t. So just keep writing, keep submitting, and move right along. And pray for the editors. [Laughs] Wish them a happy, happy life.

Nicole Boyce is a first year MFA student at UBC who mainly writes nonfiction, fiction, and humour. Her work has appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and in NōD Magazine. Originally from Calgary, she now lives and writes in Vancouver.

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