An Interview with Fiction Editor Brian Gebhart
by Liana Liu
Brian Gebhart, like all the best superheroes, has multiple identities (please note: this is not the same as multiple personalities). He's a writer! He's an MFA student at the University of Minnesota! He's a molder of young minds (please note: I hear he has a student fan club)! He's a loving husband! He's great at trivia! He's from Oklahoma! He has a fluffy cat!
Oh dear, I think I have lost the thread of my thesis. So let's skip to the point: in addition to all these things, Mr. Gebhart is also the current fiction editor of dislocate. Now that all the selections for the next issue has been finalized, and the magazine is entering the production stage, Brian has agreed to reveal to us all his best fiction editor secrets. What a fine fellow!
LL: So, Brian Gebhart, how did the submission reading go for you this year? Did it feel good? Did it feel bad? Any high moments? Any regrets?
BG: Well, reading as Fiction Editor is better than reading as an assistant editor, simply because I get to focus more of my attention on the quality work. Don't get me wrong, I still read a lot of bad prose, but I get to read a lot more of the good stuff, too. The high moment that sticks out to me is the one happening right now. The other editors and myself are in the process of making our final selections. We have a good crop of fiction to choose from, so the process involves revisiting the best submissions I've read over the past several months. As far as regrets, I suppose I would have liked to have a smoother system in place for handling the online submissions. This is our first year accepting them, so I had to work that out as we went along. Luckily, I had a great team of readers to help me out--without them, I don't know what I would have done.
LL: What sort of stories caught your attention? What were you looking for?
BG: The stories that catch my attention tend to be the ones with a sense of narrative urgency, a sense that this story must be told. It's hard to put a finer point on it, because that sense of urgency can come in many forms: from a conventional story structure with fascinating characters and great writing, to a more experimental story that grabs my attention because I desperately want to know how the pieces will fit together. What I find most disappointing are stories--and they often have good writing and a compelling situation--that just don't go anywhere, don't develop in interesting ways or offer any surprises. I saw a lot of those this year.
LL: Do you think the fiction reading committee adhered to a certain aesthetic when making choices about what they wanted to see in print? If so, how would you describe the aesthetic that dislocate aims for?
BG: We certainly don't have a singular aesthetic. Quality is always the foremost consideration. That said, we do welcome work that challenges boundaries or takes an unconventional approach to narrative. That's something I really enjoy about issues of dislocate: you'll often see an experimental story right next to one that takes a much more traditional approach. We're happy to have that mix.
LL: What are some other pitfalls you saw many writers falling into with their submissions? Do you have any deal breakers, rational or irrational, for a piece of writing?
BG: I notice many writers can't resist the temptation to concoct a lofty turn of phrase or a weighty metaphor, even if it's inconsistent with the tone of the piece. Perhaps I notice it because it's a pitfall I am susceptible to myself (and do my best to resist). As far as deal breakers, unintentional humor comes to mind. If I'm laughing at something I know I'm supposed to find gritty or moving, I find it hard to take the piece seriously.
LL: How about deal makers? A soft spot for . . . whale fiction, perhaps?
BG: Not really. At least, I can't think of anything in terms of subject matter that I'm particularly enchanted by. I do find myself impressed by humor and dialogue if they're really well done, perhaps because I don't think I'm as good at those things in my own fiction. But I'm excited by anything and everything if it's well written.
LL: If someone was going to bribe you into accepting his/her submission (though of course you would not accept the bribe, OF COURSE), what would the best bribe be?
BG: Hmm. A book deal? Short of that, I'd say tickets to the Twins/Red Sox series in the new ballpark. With vouchers for beer and hot dogs, cause that can get a little spendy. That's right, I said "spendy."
LL: Once you've picked the stories for the issue, what is your approach the editing process? Do the selected stories see much revision?
BG: We deal with revision on a case-by-case basis. Some stories need more than others. Much of that depends on the writer, on how much they're willing to revise and how much time we have to accommodate those revisions.
LL: As a writer yourself, has working on dislocate changed the way you approach sending out your own work?
BG: It's both encouraging and daunting. The sheer volume of work is overwhelming. There's just so much fiction floating around out there, and some of it is really good. So the challenge is to figure out how to distinguish your own work. If there's one lesson I've taken away from my time as an editor, it's that aspiring writers better learn how to grab a reader's attention and then offer a payoff for that attention. Every writer has their own way of doing that.
LL: Any books you've lately read and liked?
BG: I read The Savage Detectives over winter break and thought it was fascinating. Bolao is one of those writers whose work sticks in my head; I can't stop wondering how he does what he does. Right now I'm reading a book of stories by Etgar Keret called The Girl on the Fridge. Those stories are incredibly short for how powerful they are and how much narrative he's able to pack into such a small number of words.