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jessica will find the literary agent of her dreams

Jessica Brilliant Keener

by Susan Henderson on February 27, 2008

It’s hard to overestimate how much I like Jessica Keener. She’s a generous soul but no Pollyanna – she has grit, fire, and a Lauren Bacall voice to die for. Today she’s going to talk about her experience on both sides of the rejection slip – as a writer who submits her work and as an editor who reads your stories at Agni literary magazine. But it is the unexpected direction this interview took that shows what Jessica is made of, what gives her a depth and a wisdom I truly admire. So make yourself a cup of coffee and settle in. And be prepared to see the sexiest chemo shot ever. I’m just saying.

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My husband of 21 years, Barr takes all the emotional hits that spouses of writers often endure. He’s the king of faith keepers.

I want to talk to you about your work as an editor, but first, let’s hear your story about being on the other side. Go back to the beginning, when you first started submitting your work to literary magazines. How did you decide where and what to submit? Talk to me about anything that struck you then about the cost, the wait, the rules about simultaneous submissions, and of course, your experience with the editors who read your work.

The other side. Isn’t it funny how we think of it this way? I’ll get back to that. But first, the particulars:

I started submitting a long time ago in 1980. Back then, it was a criminal offense to simultaneously submit your work. Editors and magazines reinforced this policy in their submission statements. (Submit simultaneously and you will never write in this town again.) But I had a poet friend who knew better. He sent out simultaneous submissions. I remember thinking, “Gee, he’s taking a risk.” It sure accelerated his acceptance rate, though. And he wasn’t the only one. More writers started doing this. They were the smart subversives. Of course, today, simultaneous submissions are the norm. Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, I kept my turtle-with-a-broken-leg’s pace. I sent out one story at a time. I still have my original record-keeping book for tracking submissions. In 1986 it cost $1.63 per story submission. (90 cents for the outgoing package; 73 cents for the return envelope.)

Record keeping book with Scotch-taped binding.

I sent to commercial places such as The New Yorker, McCall’s, Redbook, The Atlantic. After making those rounds (and getting roundly rejected), I sent to bigger or better-known literary journals such as Agni, Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, Paris Review – rejected by all. That didn’t stop me from trying again and again (stubbornness? megalomania?) especially when editors from both commercial and lit mags scrawled notes such as: “Please try again.” “Close call.” “Difficult decision, made final round.” These encouraging phrases sent me cart wheeling with hope. Amazing how a few words from an editor altered the tenor of my day.

The good news: I started getting short listed and winning ribbons in story contests. The bad news: still no publication.

Six years later, The Chariton Review accepted my first story. What a glorious day! In retrospect, I should have expanded my list of prospects. I mean, I applaud myself (sort of) for going for top publications but it would have been smarter to target less exclusive magazines. I also could have done far better researching magazines to find the right fit for my stories. (It’s easy to do that these days. Go online and read what magazines are publishing.) Moreover, I wish I’d followed my poet friend’s example and submitted simultaneously. Why didn’t I? Fear and insecurity – my worst enemies.

During this time, commercial markets for short stories disappeared. The New Yorker used to publish two stories per issue. Ditto for The Atlantic. Literary magazines are where the action is and always was: new talent, innovative and essential work thrives there. So pick your favorite literary magazine and order a subscription. Do it today! It makes a terrific gift.

Now for the other aspect of submitting: the emotional drama. In the old days, I embraced rejections like dysfunctional lovers. I’d lose days of sanity over form rejection slips. Not anymore. Ninety percent of the time, I’m numb or indifferent to them. Is that good? I don’t know. I’m certainly not free of self-doubt – I’d feel weird without that emotional checkpoint, it’s my own form of government, my supreme court if you will – but years of rejection have toughened me. I just keep going.

How does your experience of being a submitter, or a rejectee, inform your experience as an editor?

Well, when I step into this “other side” of things, I try not to think of myself as being on any side. As a fiction editor at Agni, I approach each story as fair-mindedly as I can. I won’t succeed because I have tastes and opinions. So I try to recognize my subjectivity and accept it. From there, I hope that writers submitting will remember that if and when (and the when is a given) they get rejected they will ask these two questions: 1) was this story right for Agni? And 2) does this story need more work? I’ve turned away stories that I know someone will publish but it wasn’t what we’re looking for at Agni.

Meanwhile, when I’m on this “other side” rejecting stories, I always say a silent “sorry” to the writer and send out a quick prayer hoping they don’t take it harshly or personally. As a submitter, I know it sucks to get a story returned. At the same time, having been at this way too long both as a writer and fiction editor, I recognize that we each have our own rate of success and pathway to that success. If you want to accomplish something, you’ll keep at it.

Agni – and it’s head honcho, Sven – are some of the most respected icons in the world of short literary fiction. Why don’t you give us a sneak peek behind the scenes? You know, what does Sven eat for lunch? Does he chew on his pencils? That kind of thing… and also the more important things.

Sven. Think: tall guy who wears oversized, comfy sweaters. Offer him a cookie and a drink (with alcohol) and he’ll probably like you. I can see him raising an eyebrow as I write this. He also likes 1960s words. “This story has a good vibe,” he’ll say. Or he’ll pronounce the word “busy” like a melodic tune, sustaining the zee sound (bizz-zee) as a way of alluding to his day’s complex chores. Sven is dreamy and obtuse. He’s a wanderer with a purpose, not sure how he got here but glad he did. “I’m dividing my day into these moments,” he’ll say. He often, without meaning to, makes me laugh.

Bill Pierce, Agni’s Senior Editor, is an ideal complement to Sven. Bill is practical, super smart, passionate about Agni writers and the reason why our subscriptions numbers are up.

Here’s what I do with my Agni submissions. Every three weeks or so I go the Agni office at Boston University, about two miles from my house, and meet with Sven in the morning to discuss my pile of stories. When we’re done, he gives me a new pile.

How does Sven handpick my piles?

1) Sven may know the writer.

2) The writer may be someone he’s encouraged or asked to see more work.

3) The query letter might have notable credits.

4) He’s read the first two paragraphs of the story and it looks interesting.

5) Another writer or editor has recommended the writer to Sven.

6) I may know the writer.

7) He randomly picked it because we need to get the growing piles read.

I write a few lines about each story and give the report to Sven when we meet. For a sample of my write-ups, take a look here.

My home. Lit-up window on the top floor is my office.

In my experience as a lit mag editor, you receive many “very good” stories, but the ones that are excellent and original and take your breath away are pretty rare. What kind of story gets extra-noticed at Agni, and what process does that story go through before its author hears the final yay or nay?

If I love a story and want to publish it, I’ll tell Sven. He’ll read it and, if he agrees, he’ll run it by Bill. If Bill approves, the story’s in! I’ve chosen unpublished as well as prize winning writers.

My mission as a fiction editor at Agni is to find brilliance, a distinctive voice, a story that takes me into its world and changes mine at the same time. It’s intelligent but not preachy, has humor or may be quirky, and is many-layered. Striking language is a must. It may be about worldly concerns or highly domestic concerns. I personally don’t like stories that feel as if they have an agenda. Read Agni. Check out Agni online. You’ll get a feel for what we like.

Me without hair – post bone marrow transplant.

Okay, enough about Agni. Tell me your story. What are 5 things I’d never believe about you? Or, if you’d rather answer this: What are 5 things that most explain why you are the person you are?

1) When I was about four years old, I tore out the pages from my Beatrix Potter book, reshuffled them into a neat pile, and pretended that I was the author.

2) I was the captain of my cheerleading squad in 9th grade.

3) In my early twenties, I had a bone marrow transplant and spent two and a half months in a hospital isolation room. I was bald for about six months.

4) I love Hollywood gossip websites.

5) I’m a seeker in search of a home.

How did you know you were sick? I’d like to hear the whole story of you getting the news that you had cancer through the transplant, to now? I’d love to hear the difference between your (emotional) experience at the time to the meaning you give that experience today.

I didn’t know I was sick. It was a slow, insidious process that spanned several years beginning, perhaps, in high school. Results from a yearly physical revealed that I was anemic. This was not that unusual for young menstruating women. My doctor prescribed iron pills. Being a teenager, I didn’t take them regularly and I didn’t follow up to see if they helped. Over the next few years I noticed fatigue, some weakness and dizziness and bruising on my legs, all of which I ignored. I did go to another physician once for chest pains and not feeling right. He examined me, found nothing and said, “You’re pretty and smart. Enjoy your life,” or something like that. He tried to help me put on my coat but I didn’t like his patronizing manner. It angered me. I took my coat and walked out.

A few years later, in college, I got sick with a cold that I couldn’t shake. I finally went to the college clinic and discovered, again, that I was anemic—notably so. The doctor put me on iron pills. This time, I followed up. The pills didn’t help. That was a disturbing sign. The physician sent me back to my family physician. More blood tests followed. More weird looking data showed up. By now I was a junior in college.

Next, my physician sent me to a hematologist, someone who specializes in blood disorders. After another month of more blood tests (and a few nasty, painful bone marrow aspirations where the doctor stuck a needle in my hip bone and pulled out bone marrow), they found the answer. I had Aplastic Anemia, a rare and potentially fatal bone marrow disorder. I had a moderately severe case of it.

So what the f*#k is aplastic anemia? It’s when the bone marrow, which produces all your blood cells, begins to shut down. This accounted for 1) my very low red count, which made me tired 2) low white count, which put me in jeopardy of getting life-threatening infections and 3) low platelets, which stops bleeding and accounted for the excessive bruising on my legs.

My doctor put me on male hormones for several months. Apparently male hormones worked for a woman that was written up in the medical literature. This is why I have a husky voice today and the reason I can’t sing soprano, which I used to do pretty seriously. The hormones didn’t work. I got worse.

No other treatment existed then except for a risky, experimental bone marrow transplant. At the time, my doctor told me the procedure had a 40 percent success rate. If I chose to do nothing at all, I had a 15 percent chance of spontaneous remission and survival.

Meanwhile, all my siblings were tested to see if they matched my bone marrow. Siblings have a one in four chance of matching. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. My youngest brother matched! A miracle.

Jessica and Frank.

But I was terrified and didn’t want to leap into a procedure that could kill me. Yet I’d gotten sick to the point where I couldn’t walk upstairs anymore without getting severely winded. I was hospitalized once for an eye hemorrhage, which is dangerously close to my brain and could have caused a stroke. I needed to make a decision.

At the same time, I wanted to graduate college. I hired tutors to make up work I missed due to fatigue and the fact that I needed to stay away from crowds (to avoid catching viruses). I continued to worsen. I stopped going out. In September, one month before checking into the hospital for my transplant, I picked up my college diploma.

I cannot emphasize the level of terror I lived with for a year before the transplant. I often woke up gasping, afraid I would die when I went to sleep. I went to a hypnosis clinic to calm my fears. I went to a therapist to deal with my obsession with dying. Weeks before I went into the hospital, I visited a local faith healer after I saw him on late night TV. He gave me visualizing and white light exercises.

Then something inexplicable happened. About a week before I went into the hospital, I had a remarkable dream. I saw myself floating in the universe. A white star or something like that, told me I would be alright. When I awoke from that dream, I knew that I would get through. I knew it 100 percent. It’s one of those mystical experiences that sounds stupid and corny when you try to write about it but was tangible, emotionally potent, and utterly real to me – beyond verbal expression.

Here I am twenty-nine years later. My transplant could not have been more successful. My brother saved me. I am cured. An amazing side note to this is that my brother was not a planned pregnancy. In fact, I was supposed to get a dog. But my mother got pregnant and told me I would get a baby instead. Good deal, huh?

Obviously, this experience changed how I think of my life and how I approach it. I never lose sight of my mortality. I wish I could but I can’t. I know that we’re vulnerable and that life is a mystery far beyond our little time here on earth. It’s a spiritual thing that I carry with me at all times. Every second. In that way, the illness was a gift. Life is urgent. It’s not something to waste.

Footnote: I wrote about my illness in my first novel, which I called Body Chemistry (unpublished). “Recovery,” my first published story that I talked about earlier was the seed for this novel. It’s about a girl in a hospital room. “Recovery” also won Redbook’s second prize in fiction and was additionally nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Me and my mom when she came to visit us in Budapest.

Unpublished novels just kill me – all that work and then the decision to let it go…. Tell me about the one you’re shopping around right now.

It’s called: Love, Death & Hunger and I’m polishing it up as we speak. It’s about a thirty-something couple who move from Atlanta to Budapest in the mid-1990s, and whose lives collide with a WW2 American veteran searching for his daughter’s murderer. The story deals with the idea of home and identity, love and forgiveness and doing what you think is right. I lived in Budapest for a year so it’s been fun revisiting it in my mind. Budapest is rife with complex history. During WW2, an estimated 800,000 Jews were deported and gassed within a few months at the end of the war. As part of my research, I spoke to half a dozen Hungarian Jewish survivors from that time. It’s been a humbling experience.

Jessica Keener has an ear for the nuances of family life and manages, in this book, a small miracle –describing, convincingly, a family suffering the rigidity and opaqueness of a small-scale tyrant, yet honoring his authority and treating his painful struggles with kindness. Keener’s heroine, a 14-year old girl impatient to achieve womanliness, is a marvel of curiosity, impulsiveness, and generosity. What a lovely book! ~ C. Michael Curtis

My other novel that I finished last spring is called Others Less Fortunate and is about motherlessness. It’s about an upper middle class family of four children coping with the tragic loss of their mother, an emotionally remote, pill-popping suburban wife. The story takes place in Boston in the 1960s and is seen through the eyes of the oldest teenage daughter, Sarah, a gifted singer who sexualizes her grief. A narcissistic father compounds the difficulty of the loss. Yet the need for love and nurturance overrides and is a powerful force as the family seeks to fill this terrible void. You can read an excerpt here or here. The inspiration for this story originates with a tragedy that occurred when I was in 7th grade. My friend’s mother killed herself. Everyone at school knew about it but no one talked about it, including me. This novel was a way to explore the devastation and haunted feeling I experienced because of my friend.

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Bio:

Jessica Keener is a fiction editor at Agni magazine and co-host of Backstory. Her work has been listed in the Pushcart Prize anthology under ‘100 outstanding writers,’ and published in literary journals as well as online sites including The Huffington Post, iVillage and DearReader.com. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist award, in 2001 she co-wrote Time to Make the Donuts with the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts. For her day job, she freelances for The Boston Globe and other national magazines including Oprah and New England Home. She is also a member of Backspace.

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