A Conversation With Lou Ann Walker

Lou Ann Walker. Star Black photo

By Christine Sampson

In its latest edition, The Southampton Review has scored a major first: One of its essays, “Taut Rhythmic Surfaces” by George Saunders, has won a Pushcart Prize. What’s more, the literary journal has also launched TSR Online, a fresh take on its virtual edition that mixes classics from its past 22 issues with its new work. The Southampton Review (TSR) editor-in-chief Lou Ann Walker, a memoir and short story writer and the interim director of Southampton College’s Masters in Fine Arts in creative writing and literature program, discussed these accomplishments with The Sag Harbor Express.

What is the goal every time you and your team sit down to develop the next edition of TSR?

We aim to find work that intrigues us both visually and in prose and poetry. We look for work that is fresh because we like to strike a balance between established writers and emerging writers, and that gives us a lot of leeway. We also work with themes and care a lot about the craft of writing. The art has to meet a very high standard, because we have beautiful four-color printing and gorgeous paper and we want to show the best on it. And we’re not afraid of a little controversy in the works we choose. We look for work that will challenge people, make them think.

How meaningful is it for a TSR work to win a Pushcart Prize for the first time?

It’s extremely meaningful. It was very exciting to be able to publish George Saunders because he’s so wonderful. We’ve had some really nice prizes in the past — Best American Poetry, Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays — some winners, some honorable mentions, but this was quite exciting for us. This is a wonderful look at craft. This also honors James Salter, a very important writer out here. The essay Saunders wrote, “Taut Rhythmic Surfaces,” was a talk, a eulogy really, that he gave at Salter’s memorial service, in which he was discussing how important Salter’s work had been to him and how much he learned about the craft of writing from Salter.

We understand you now have a distinct virtual edition. Can you give us a preview?

The online version is updated every week with new work, and we also add in some classics. We have 22 issues so far and so we get to draw from that and remind people of what we’ve published in the past so people get to see it. It’s a great pleasure. It’s separate but equal. [TSR managing editor] Emily Smith Gilbert is leading the work there.

What would you say is the relationship between TSR and the writing community at large?

It’s very meaningful to us that we hear from writers all over the country and around the world who have discovered us somehow in a library or online and who want to contribute. We have the ability, through Submittable, to really reach a greater audience than we would have ever been able to do before. It’s really moving to us when people say, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been published.’

What advice would you give to writers who aspire to be published in The Southampton Review?

The most important aspect is to read it and see whether or not the writer’s work would fit in with the other pieces there in some way or another, and yet be different, so it’s complex. You want it to be as original as possible and yet not be something we don’t do. That’s the first thing. The second thing is not to fake a cover letter. People will say, ‘I read it all the time,’ but we never send a copy to Sheboygan. We find that a lot. A good cover letter helps a lot. Simple and direct. And just attention to the sentences and the words and the poems. Often we’ll write to someone and say, ‘This didn’t work for us, but keep us in mind for future works.’

The winter/spring 2018 edition of The Southampton Review can be purchased online by visiting thesouthamptonreview.com/subscribe.