with Narrative Founders Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks
As Narrative celebrates its fifteenth year of publishing, we thought it high time to ask our founding editors a few questions.
1. What is a favorite early-days-of-Narrative memory?
TJ: Summertime fifteen years ago, we were staying at our friend Jane Lancellotti’s house on Martha’s Vineyard. It was way before there were any literary magazines of any sort online and before anyone had any idea of what such a thing could be. Narrative was a dream we brought forth in perfect idleness while on vacation.
CE: I think back to those first days when it was just three of us: Tom, Lacy Crawford, and me. We worked out of our house. Our kids were babies, Tom and I were teaching extra classes to pay the writers and production folks. John Miller, Mimi Kusch, Pat Gage, Mike Croft, Caitlin McKenna, they were there in the earliest days, heroes all.
2. And now?
CE: Narrative today is a fifteen-year collaboration of readers, writers, teachers, supporters, volunteers, and staff. A far-flung community united by a belief in the power of story. I’m proud of the work we’ve published across the years, and the fact that the Narrative free library is being used by so many teachers around the world who simply don’t have access to books is a wonder we never could have anticipated. Yet one aspect the public never sees is the extraordinary efforts behind the scenes given to each piece submitted, whether the writer is known or unknown. The respect, the care, the considered commentary, the insane rooting for a given story or poem make me very proud to be part of a community of folks who care so deeply.
3. Why the name Narrative?
CE: There never was another name. It was always Narrative. Simple, complex, and true. Tell me a story.
TJ: As Robert Stone so perfectly put it in his prefatory remarks when he read for us one evening in 2012, “Stories are as necessary to life as bread. There is no sense to life, or order to experience, outside narrative. The imposing of narrative, the naming of days, which are themselves stories, is utterly necessary to any kind of experience that is close to any kind of reason. So we are going forward here.”
4. What’s it like to work as a husband/wife team? Do you edit each other?
TJ: Having lost a bet to Carol in the first days of our romance, I learned not to bet against her and to take her advice. She’s almost always right. The bet was that I could find another Edgarian, specifically among the millions of names in the Manhattan phone book, but in losing I also won, because the bet was for dinner out. And we’ve been dining together ever since.
CE: Thirty-one years and counting, I’d say we’ve almost figured out our dance. First and last, a lot of mutual respect. Our creative tension we put into service for the magazine. Tom would say that I’m often out ahead of him, visioning the next thing while he’s figuring out how to build the last idea! Fair enough, and also true, he is often ahead of me, and certainly he doesn’t truck with the prevailing winds. Editorially, we almost always agree. But there is a push/pull that I think is good for Narrative, for broadening the readership. In terms of my own work, Tom is my first reader, though I tend not to show anything till I’m way down the road. And I’m his first reader. We’re tough on each other, but always in the name of the work being better.
5. Narrative makes me believe in . . .
TJ: It’s the other way around: The importance of meaningful connection makes me believe in Narrative.
CE: At the end of the day, the Narrative community—artists and readers, writers and teachers—bridges cultures and generations, and, whoa, don’t we need that? Across fifteen years, we’ve published thousands of artists, known and emerging, ages fourteen to ninety. For a writer, there is no set pace or path. You know, you can be emerging at ninety.
6. A favorite piece you’ve edited over the years that stands out? That made you laugh . . . or cry? That changed you?
TJ: Bringing forward the work of new writers has always been the greatest pleasure. In my imagining, we are all here together in a perennial lawn party on a Sunday afternoon, conversing—all the great writers of the past and all of us now who believe in carrying the work forward . . . so many old friends and new, all.
CE: I just finished working with the high school winners of our annual “Tell Me a Story” contest. This year’s prompt was “The Mistake.” I chose it as a lightning rod, in an era when too many of the adults onstage aren’t owning their mistakes. Well, these young writers knocked me out with their audacity, knowing, humility, boldness. Working with them to edit their pieces healed a bit of my Trump-weary heart.
7. What advice would you share with an aspiring writer?
TJ: Writing is a gift you provide to the reader. You must first be there for the reader before the reader can be there for you.
CE: An early mentor once told me that talent is only about fifteen percent of it—in the end, a key fifteen percent, but only then. He left it to me to figure out the rest. The other eighty-five percent is sweat—your own, mixed with the sweat of those who’ve walked the path before you. It’s years of dedicated practice learning, reading, discovering the mysteries of craft—while plumbing the depths of your most urgent vulnerabilities, hopes, fears to create the best art that’s in you.
8. You two were among the first to see and capture the possibilities that the digital world offered for literature. What’s it going to look like in 2119?
TJ: A hundred years from now! Gadzooks, I’d like to be around to see what it looks like. No one knows, but there will always be the need for, and the love of, stories and poems.
CE: The way it’s going, I think it’s safe to say that we’ll need our stories and our storytellers more than ever to lift us, remind us, to keep us connected to our shared humanity.
9. When you read a manuscript, what makes you say yes?
TJ: Excellence is our criterion. Yes is such a good word, the more so when the nature of the author’s yes prompts it in the reader.
CE: I’m always looking for energy, muscle on the page. An abundance of gifts offered for the reader’s pleasure: imagination, illumination, reversals, character, wisdom, entertainment, heart—the wow.
10. Do you have a writer’s talisman? Favorite item on your desk?
TJ: Some years ago, I despaired of ever finding a good wooden pencil, as the ones generally for sale at office supply and stationery stores were of poorer, cheaper quality than the old yellow #2 pencils of fifty or sixty years ago. Then one Christmas Carol presented me with a box of Palomino Blackwing pencils, a remake of the legendary now-extinct Eberhardt-Faber Blackwing 602. Lovely pencils. Writing is physical, tactile; so much depends on touch.
CE: I have all kinds of good-luck juju I keep on the desk. Most are gifts from friends after I’ve finished a book. A silver spoon and a wooden duduk flute from the days when I was writing Rise the Euphrates. The novel I’m just finishing is set in 1906, and a great friend gave me a china teacup that was torched in the 1906 San Francisco fire that followed the great quake. The cup looks as if it had been forged in iron. I like to hold it at a point in the day when I’m tired. It’s such a precious thing and I think—I believe—it has secret powers.
11. What do you do when the writer’s spirit flags?
TJ: Rest, dream, let the well fill, start anew. And, George T. Stagg, uncut, unfiltered, barrel proof, has been known to inspire.
CE: Walk the dog, do yoga, talk to our kids, feed some friends, read-read-read, a bath, sleep. Tom drinks the brown stuff. I am tequila-only: Ocho blanco.
12. Character or literary figure that most reminds you of Carol?
13. Character or literary figure that most reminds you of Tom?
CE: Tom is all his own.
14. Literary heroine/hero?
TJ: Tolstoy, contradictions and all.
CE: Jane, Virginia, Zora, Eudora, Leo, Scott, Toni, Alice, E.L.
15. Favorite line that you or someone else wrote?
TJ: Papa-Daddy’s Mama’s papa and sulks.
CE: So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.
—Zora Neale Hurston