Interview with Eliza Borné and Maxwell George
Since 1992 Oxford American has published some of the South’s best writing, featuring stalwarts such as Bobbie Ann Mason, William Gay, and Barry Hannah, as well as fresh voices Stephanie Powell Watts, Jamie Quatro, and Ansel Elkins. Though named after Oxford, Mississippi, where the magazine was founded, it’s now stationed in Little Rock, Arkansas—just another one of its near countless idiosyncrasies.
Newly minted Editor Eliza Borné and Managing Editor Maxwell George, who have just produced their second issue as official tops of the masthead, speak about their path to joining the Southern institution, the joys and challenges of the job, and what makes Oxford American the Oxford American.
ROSS GARRISON: To start, would you tell me about how you became interested in working in the magazine industry and how you came to work for the Oxford American in particular?
ELIZA BORNÉ: I discovered the Oxford American in the spring of 2003, when the sixth music issue was on newsstands. (The Esther Phillips Issue, as I think of it now. Every music issue comes with a compilation CD, and this one remains one of my favorites. Little Milton’s “Grits Ain’t Groceries.” Marshall Chapman’s “Leaving Loachapoka.” Esther’s “No Headstone on My Grave.” My Morning Jacket’s “Evelyn is Not Real.” Twenty-three songs, and there’s no weak link.) In 2003, the OA had recently relocated from Oxford to Little Rock, where I was born and raised, and it was just astonishing to learn that such a spirited magazine was being made in my backyard.
Let’s see if I can give you the abridged version of what happened next: Three years later, I got an OA summer internship, after my first year in college. I applied to intern at the OA because by then I was hooked on the magazine, and I figured I could work there while living (for free) with my parents in Little Rock. After I graduated, I landed at BookPage, a monthly book review publication based in Nashville. In 2012, I happened to meet Roger D. Hodge, the OA’s editor, at the Southern Festival of Books. He mentioned that he was looking to hire an associate editor—would I be interested? I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work for my favorite magazine, so I moved home to Arkansas after about eight years away.
MAXWELL GEORGE: My arrival to the OA is less exciting. After college, I moved back to my hometown (Charlotte) and tried freelance writing, with little success. I eventually realized that I had to see the publishing industry from the inside if I was to understand how to get traction, so I applied for an internship at the Oxford American. The magazine was undergoing a critical transition then and when the internship ended Roger was looking for another editorial hand and hired me.
GARRISON: So you both started out as interns at the magazine. Looking back, what did you learn during the internship that helped you get where you are today? Beyond just the internship, what are some of the hardest lessons you’ve had to learn as editors?
BORNÉ: The internship was hugely valuable. It remains so for our interns today. When I came to the OA, I knew that I wanted to write and edit, but I learned about fact-checking and art research and design, and all the other things that go into creating a magazine with a team. I learned the value of reading constantly. There were toppling stacks of submissions to read during the day, and at night, I took home old copies of The New Yorker that were piled around the office. The summer was also loads of fun. I realized I actually enjoyed working late on deadline.
As far as hard lessons—I still don’t like saying “No,” though I have to do it every day, whether I’m turning down a submission or walking away from a piece of art I’d like to publish because the licensing fee is out of our budget.
GEORGE: Because the staff is so small, every intern becomes integral to the making of the magazine during their term. We truly could not do this without the contributions of every individual who has come through.
Besides having to say “No” to pieces with promise (which doesn’t seem to get easier with experience), the toughest lesson I’ve learned has been in building up the confidence required of being an editor. It takes discernment, and nerve, to judge literary art, and it takes tact and sympathy to collaborate intimately with writers. I am learning more and more about my own sensibilities with every piece I work through, every issue we produce.
GARRISON: Eliza, now that you’re in charge, what goals do you have for the magazine, short and long term? What sort of changes do you hope to make?
BORNÉ: Whenever I’m asked this question, I start by saying what we won’t change. Readers have been turning to the Oxford American for nearly twenty-five years to find excellent writing from and about the South, and I hope that will be the case for many years to come. I couldn’t be prouder of what we created under Roger’s leadership. We redesigned our website. We commissioned ambitious reporting (even with our modest resources—the OA is a nonprofit). We brought on the amazingly talented poet Rebecca Gayle Howell as our poetry editor, and her work has been outstanding—read Nikky Finney’s extraordinary long poem “The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy,” from our fall 2015 issue, for just one example. We collaborated with longtime OA columnist John T. Edge on a special section devoted to Southern food in spring 2015, and with the help of contributing editor Jamie Quatro, we published ten transformative short stories last summer. I’m excited to continue working with the many writers, artists, and other contributors in the OA family to keep publishing some of the best writing and art you’ll find in any magazine.
I’m also excited to find new contributors who will make us even better. Discovery is such an important part of the OA’s identity. Over the years, countless writers have made their debuts in our pages, and that’s a tradition I’ll gladly continue. I also believe that the magazine is more interesting and nuanced—that it’s a better read—when we diversify our coverage in every sense. Our entire editorial staff feels passionate about this, which I think was especially apparent in our Georgia Music Issue. For instance, the Oxford American music issues have never devoted a substantial number of pages to hip-hop analysis, and in this issue we have major pieces on OutKast, Rico Wade, Field Mob, and others. Those pieces share space with explorations of Georgians ranging from The Indigo Girls to genius swing jazz bandleader Fletcher Henderson to comedy-country star Ray Stevens.
Many of my long-term goals involve online projects that will, I hope, give OA readers more opportunities to engage with the magazine. For one thing, I think we have a responsibility to digitize our archive before copies of the early OAs are lost forever—some of our earliest issues are in very short supply. We redesigned OxfordAmerican.org in early 2015, and now we have more capability than ever to publish and promote literary works online. And I’d love to launch an OA podcast. How great would it be to have Chris Offutt start recording every installment of his hilarious (irreverent) cooking column, “Cookin’ With Chris”?
Finally, in the Declaration of Intent published in the magazine’s debut issue, in the spring of 1992, founding editor Marc Smirnoff wrote that the “Oxford American is primed for the trials, and glories, ahead. We are, after all, optimists.” Our twenty-fifth anniversary is in 2017, and I doubt anyone would have predicted the sheer number of trials (and glories) the OA has experienced over the past quarter-century. I look forward to working with our staff to plan an appropriate celebration that honors our past and our future.
GARRISON: How has being an editor affected your own writing? What are the ways one feeds or obstructs the other?
GEORGE: While I’d say I’ve vastly improved as a writer, in terms of mechanics, the editing has also slowed my drafting process to a trickle. I can’t finish a sentence without rewriting the one before it, tinkering my way through paragraphs, thus stultifying my natural inspiration as I go. Working with other peoples’ good ideas throughout the day is also creatively exhausting, so I can only do original work in the morning. Though I do feel that every editing experience excites the creator in me.
GARRISON: After a long day of reading submissions and editing work, do you have trouble finding time and focus for pleasure reading?
BORNÉ: Reading is always a pleasure, though I do have trouble following anything dense or complex when I’m working overtime on deadline—I usually read at night, but after a taxing day at work, I’ll fall asleep before I can get anywhere in my book. It’ll take me a week to read one chapter! Whenever we put a magazine to bed, I feel such elation that I’ll have time and attention to stay up late and read for fun. A few days after closing our most recent issue, our associate editor, Caitlin Love, leant me her collection of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I can’t wait to read those and everything else that’s been stacking up on my desk, and on my nightstand, and in the back of my car . . .
GARRISON: Who are some of your favorite authors?
BORNÉ: Too many to offer a comprehensive list. Can I name my favorite books I’ve read in the past year? Hold Still by Sally Mann, Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key, Barbarian Days by William Finnegan, Euphoria by Lily King.
GEORGE: Antonio Ruiz Camacho’s linked story collection Barefoot Dogs is the most exciting revelation for me of late. I loved Hall of Small Mammals by OA contributor Thomas Pierce. I recently discovered Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—wow. And I eagerly await Kiese Laymon’s forthcoming novel and memoir, as well as any new work by OA poetry editor Rebecca Gayle Howell.
GARRISON: Do you think there are advantages to being “marooned” in Arkansas rather than being in the middle of a publishing hub?
BORNÉ: The Oxford American is a magazine of the South. Where else could we be based but the South? Living in Arkansas inspires me in more ways than I can recount. There’s such cultural richness here, from the Ozarks to the Delta, and it takes but a few hours to drive to Nashville, New Orleans, our spiritual home of Oxford, Mississippi, and so many other endlessly fascinating and enjoyable places.
A while back I went on a group bike tour in Crittenden County, Arkansas, to check out the stunning vistas that were captured by the great painter Carroll Cloar. The tour was led by a curator from the Brooks Museum in Memphis and had been planned on the occasion of an exhibition on view at the Arkansas Arts Center. We saw the cemetery portrayed in Cloar’s “Gibson Bayou Anthology,” and our guide read from Look Homeward Angel while we tiptoed around the angel statue that appears in several of Cloar’s paintings. Then we returned to the Earle Train Depot-turned Crittenden County Museum for barbeque sandwiches. It happened to be Derby Day, so after lunch I rushed home so I could be ready with my julep by the Call to Post.
I love visiting New York (is this the “publishing hub” you speak of?), but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but the South.
Also, it’s deeply satisfying to live and invest in the community where I was raised. I now work about a mile and a half away from Central High (the National Historic Site), where I went to school. Last semester I visited one of Central’s creative writing classes to talk to students about the OA. There are plenty of young people here who are already cultivating an interest in literature and magazines. I don’t feel very marooned when I talk to them.
GARRISON: Would you describe your day-to-day work schedule? How much does it change throughout the publishing and editorial process?
GEORGE: It fluctuates greatly depending on what part of the cycle we’re in—that is, how far out from the next deadline we are. My job, in its purest sense, is to recruit stories and then see them through to publication. On the day-to-day this looks like: reading submissions and proposals, rejecting and occasionally accepting submissions and proposals, working with drafts, corresponding with collaborators, proofing galleys. A significant portion of the editor job is writing e-mails. When we are in deadline, the reading of submissions gets neglected and the alleviating correspondence increases correlatively.
BORNÉ: Ditto. Along with: Planning issue budgets, staying in close contact with our art director as we finalize layouts, writing grants, occasionally visiting classrooms.
GARRISON: What part of the process do you most enjoy? Least enjoy?
GEORGE: The aforementioned ushering of individual pieces through the editorial process, from conception to shaping to polishing to print—I most enjoy the ideas, large and small, which are the heart of this work. Every piece is a singular project and experience. I least enjoy the extracurricular responsibilities that come with working for a strapped nonprofit arts organization. It’s all hands on deck here.
BORNÉ: I would agree with that. Like all editors, I love the feeling of discovering a gem in my submissions pile. And I relish the process of working with my colleagues—from our interns to our art director to our editors—on all the numerous collaborative aspects of publishing a magazine: the endless conversations, large and small, about pieces of writing (should we accept a short story? would this essay be better if it were shifted to the past tense? does this sentence need to go?), the debates over art selection, even the trips to the printer for some minute quality check.
I least enjoy feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day to complete everything on my to-do list. I don’t actually mind the “extracurricular responsibilities,” as Max puts it—I really enjoy talking with OA readers at our events, and though it can be a slog to write grants, I ultimately find the process energizing; it helps me catalogue and keep track of our accomplishments. And of course, it’s awesome when we’re successful: grant funds are necessary to help us continue our work.
GARRISON: It’s difficult to think of another magazine with anything beyond superficial similarities to Oxford American. It’s like The New Yorker, a small literary quarterly, and an alt weekly, all smothered in gravy. How would you describe the magazine and its editorial mission?
GEORGE: Readers complain if you put too much gravy on the magazine—the pages stick together and it’s opacity is bad for reading. I do think the OA is utterly distinct. I appreciate your comparisons and I agree there are aspects of each of those at work here, but above all I think this magazine is distinguished for the freedom we give writers. The editorial voice is in the background, and we encourage our writers to experiment and be ambitious with their ideas. I like to think that comes through in the reading experience—actually, that’s the gravy.
BORNÉ: Many of my favorite OA pieces are what I think of as hybrid essays, combining elements of different genres (see Justin Nobel’s “Walking the Tornado Line,” which is part travelogue, part profile, part reportage). I love that our pieces don’t fit into any formula or rubric. And I think writers love that, too.
The Oxford American is also a beautiful magazine; in any given issue, you’ll find work by more than twenty artists and photographers. Our art director, Tom Martin, creates gorgeous layouts and iconic covers.
GARRISON: For a magazine with perhaps a fairly small target demographic, how has Oxford American survived as long as it has?
GEORGE: So many factors, including luck, gumption, quality, and again, that gravy. Our beloved annual music issue helps, too.
BORNÉ: Don’t forget our readers! There are a lot of readers all over the world who have a very strong personal relationship with this magazine—they collect the issues and go nuts when we unveil the covers. It’s thrilling to be a part of that excitement.
GARRISON: I recently got the newest issue—Spring 2016—in the mail, and I’m especially enjoying the essay on Lewis Nordan. I read Wolf Whistle last year, which I loved, and this essay is making me want to seek out more of his work. Ansel Elkins’ Fall 2015 piece on Frank Stanford had a similar effect. As much as I love Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner and Harper Lee, they get invoked so often in discussions about Southern literature that it’s easy to forget, especially if you’re not from the region, just how much talent and variety is out there. Who are some other Southern writers you feel are overlooked and underappreciated?
BORNÉ: Our Spring issue also features a short story by Crystal Wilkinson—an excerpt from her novel The Birds of Opulence, published by the University Press of Kentucky. Crystal is a highly acclaimed author, and she has plenty of fans—but I’m not sure why she isn’t, just, hugely popular. The story she published with us—“Sky. Blood. Bone. Breath”—is stunning. Read it, please. You’ll see.
I could make a long list of “underrated Southern books” (and in fact the OA did just that in 2009)—but instead I’ll share a couple of my own personal favorites and obsessions.
Not long ago, I was browsing in a bookstore in Harrisburg, and then a couple of days later at another store in Ithaca. I was shocked that neither store carried a single book by Charles Portis. Can we say that Portis is overlooked? Not by anyone I know in Little Rock, but I worry for those readers in Pennsylvania and New York.
I’ll also give a pitch for John Gould Fletcher, an Imagist poet from Little Rock who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939. Read his poetry if you wish, but I most highly recommend his impressionistic history of the state, Arkansas, published in 1947. (It starts where every good state history must start: “A Look Around the Land.”) Here’s where I have to disclose that JGF was my grandfather’s uncle. The older I get, the more fascinated I become with Fletcher and his wife, Charlie May Simon, a children’s author and homesteader who is often overshadowed by her more famous husband.
GARRISON: The music issues are a personal favorite of mine. (I regularly listen to my Hilltops album, which I bought after the Mississippi issue.) What goes into putting out a music issue as opposed to a regular issue? Are there additional legal issues? Any other complications?
GEORGE: Jamie Quatro wrote that Hilltops piece—it’s a classic around here! Since the music issues come with a CD, they involve an extra layer of complexity. We don’t just get to make a mix of our favorite songs. It’s a bit more complex than that unfortunately. There are tons of legal responsibilities and flaming hoops in licensing the music. And there’s the search for art and imagery, which is exponentially more difficult than in our normal issues. And the pieces themselves are of a different tribe from our usual stuff. It’s a lot of work, but we love them as much as our readers. I’m pulling for North Carolina next year. We don’t know yet.
GARRISON: Since you aren’t just picking your favorite songs, do you mind elaborating on the process a bit? What sort of criteria are you using?
GEORGE: There are some obvious criteria: we’ve got to have diversity in genre, era, gender, and locales (we didn’t want to do all Athens or all Atlanta for last year’s Georgia issue). We’re also thinking about the sequence of the compilation, the flow of songs and the peaks and valleys of their emotions and sounds. And then there are silent factors: Who owns and administers the rights to the music? Will they let us use this song? Every issue we come up short on a beloved song we wanted due to rights holders or record companies or artists’ estates denying our request for use. Inevitably there will be a handful (or more) of discoveries as we do our listening research, and I hope this spirit of revelation comes through in the issues. I think it does, very strongly, in the Georgia issue.
GARRISON: In a recent issue—Fall 2015—you have a powerful profile of a transgender woman living in El Paso, Texas. I'm not sure I can think of another article from OA that involved so much reportage. Is this the mark of a new direction for the magazine?
GEORGE: I’m really glad you brought this piece up. I can’t say enough about the writer, Jon Blitzer, who’s on staff at The New Yorker. He’s young, but he’s an absolute master—William Finnegan is his hero, which goes a ways in explaining his ambition. You’re right, this was an exceptional reported piece by our standards. I wouldn’t say it signals a new direction for us. If you got the pitch I got from Jon, you’d have signed it up, too. I suppose he came to us with it because he wanted the freedom to tell Claudia’s story in this very intimate way. It wasn’t straight journalism per se, but it certainly wasn’t just a literary essay. For us, it was an honor to give Jon the encouragement and space to pursue what he envisioned. And we have a 15-page radical libretto by Nikky Finney in the same issue! That’s the Oxford American. Tell your friends.
GARRISON: When the South is discussed, it’s usually in extremes. It’s either the country’s nasty backwater or it’s this hallowed land of peach cobbler and hospitality. Would you talk about representing the South as a region, with all the baggage, good and bad, implied in that?
BORNÉ: With the exception of the four years when I was away at college—I went to Wellesley, just outside of Boston—I’ve lived in the South for my whole life. So I can certainly relate to processing and coping with the region’s baggage. To name just one example: My husband is a public defender and his clients are all inmates on death row. I don’t have illusions about the failings of our criminal justice system. Few issues make me angrier than the death penalty.
But there are plenty of folks speaking truth to power and doing good work here, too. Pick up any issue of the Oxford American, and you’ll read about people like the writer John Barry, of Rising Tide fame, who is fighting coastal erosion in Louisiana. Or about Killer Mike, who uses his platform to speak out on social issues. Or the artists in south Texas who incorporate the border wall into their work. Or community organizer Lance Hill, who is bringing people together in New Orleans with the mirliton, described in our pages as “a revolutionary vegetable.” I could go on and on.
As Roger wrote in our spring 2013 issue, the South “is not one thing or one idea or even one place.” How do we represent such a broad region? We publish great stories. There are so many stories to tell.