Flipped Interview: The Hippocampus Staff Answers Instead of Asks — Behind the Scenes at an Online Literary Magazine

Interview crowdsourced by readers and staff members

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Usually we ask the questions. We inquire the minds of memoirists, authors, agents, publishers, editors and other literary professionals. This month, however, with the busy holiday season, we’ll fess up that we didn’t have an interview lined up. But then it got us thinking!

We know people—not just people: writers—have questions about what happens behind the scenes at literary magazines. And, well, we like to talk about what we do.

So we took a 180. Instead of asking, we’re answering. We put a call out and we collected questions via Facebook, Twitter, text message and email from our readers and even some writer friends. A few eager folks even asked more than one question. And we Hippocampus staff members were happy to answer them:


Q. What’s a common mistake you see in submissions that could be easily fixed? – Sarah, San Diego

Donna: I’m leaving this one to the reading panel!

cathy bellCathy Bell, reader: The most common mistake is not following submission guidelines. Readers like things double-spaced and we need them to be anonymous at Hippocampus. Sometimes pieces are perfect, but for the ending. Endings are really important. There needs to be emotion and tying it back to the beginning can be an easy way to gain closure.


anthony j. mohr on boat

Anthony Mohr, reader: Too many authors spend the first one to four pages clearing their throat before launching into the story. Another problem I often see is summary at the expense of scene.



MT-CozzolaMT Cozzola, reader: To me, beyond the technical stuff like grammar and failing to adhere to guidelines, it’s when the author uses the ending to tell me what the story means. If you have to explain it, you probably didn’t show it.



pamela langleyPamela Ramos Langley, reader: Poor, unassociated and/or throw-away titles. For me a title has more relevance than many writers acknowledge—it’s the smashing necklace with the little black dress for me. Functioning much as the opening credits (including the title) of a film. It needs to have punch, purpose, connection. Titles like “My Story,” “My Mother,” “Daddy’s Wish” “The Tree,” or such don’t pull me into a submission. Whereas something compelling, “Behind the Walls,” or “How to Attend an Indian Funeral,” or “Wash Me Clean,” these make me want to read!


donna talarico and k justice fisher

K. Justice Fisher, reader: Grammatical error is the most common mistake I see. One error can be overlooked by an eager writer reading their own work for the 100th time, but 20 errors… that’s sloppy. That’s truly the easiest fix and most common mistake.



shannon-fandlerShannon Fandler, reader/copy editor: This is not such an easy fix, but it’s one of the most common mistakes I notice. Sometimes a submission seems close but doesn’t quite convince the reader that they should care as much as the author does. Family histories are important and interesting to the person they belong to, but not always to the reader. The writing that stands out to me is always about more than just the personal story. “Lessons in Sign” is a great example of weaving in a reflective thread (thoughts on language and disability) to get the reader thinking and to connect the story to a bigger picture.


Alex BarbolishAlex Barbolish, reader: Stories where the author is clearly drunk on writing—that was a phrase one of my professors used for when an author gives way more backstory or detail than is necessary, to the point where it overwhelms and detracts from the story. Like Shannon said, it’s a matter of the author understanding the difference between what’s important to the reader vs. what’s important to the writer.


risa nye wearing wingsRisa Nye, columnist and reader: I think before submitting anything, an author should read the piece out loud. I think so many of the common errors we see would be caught this way: tense changes, words left out or repeated, repetition, lack of continuity. One big mistake I see is when a person tries to cram a lifetime into 10 (or however many) pages. Choose one incident, show why it is important to the writer, and let the reader share the experience.


kevin-beermanKevin, reader/photo editor: I think everyone else covered all the bases! They were thorough in their observations and left me with nothing to add. They nailed it.



Q. Since launching Hippocampus, have you found or seen any trends or shifts develop in the content you publish? Style? Subject matter? – Tara, State College, Pa.

Donna Talarico, founder: This is a good question. The first real trend we noticed was that we were getting a lot of flash nonfiction submissions, so we created an official category for it in the spring of 2013. We’ve also been seeing more second-person POV—you know, you open the queue and you see a submission… OK, I’m just trying to work in some wordplay… But, yeah, that’s been something we’re seeing more of: writers playing with POV in a genre that traditionally sticks to first-person. As far as subject matter, as many might expect, we get many, many loss- and grief-related memoirs, but they’re a tough sell—we, publish few and far between of these type of submissions (see Shannon’s answer below to the “mistake” question). I am so excited at the range of topics that come through our queue.

Q. What do you feel sets Hippocampus apart from other nonfiction and literary journals and magazines? – Tara (And Mike from near Pittsburgh asked a nearly identical question.)

Donna: Certainly similar online journals have launched since we were founded in 2010, but I feel that Hippocampus filled a gap: five years ago there were hardly any exclusively online journals dedicated exclusively to creative nonfiction. Other things that set us apart: our mission statement was crafted with the digital era in mind—I wanted Hippocampus to be a two-way medium, a community. Finally, I built the magazine’s website with the online reader in mind. Accessibility and user experience matter. My web background helped immensely in this area; many online journals design for the web from a print perspective. I’d love if Hippocampus could champion change for literary magazine websites (not content; the structure). I should note that I’ve seen a few great print, hybrid and online magazines overhaul their websites in the past year or so and that makes me smile!

Q. Do you ever find your readers disagree on the quality of a submission? – Sarah

Donna: Yes. It’s a good thing our reading panel is a virtual crew because, sometimes, there would be some pretty good Nerf wars going on in the office. (Because if we had an office, we’d have Nerf guns.) Disagreements aren’t ever really heated, though; they’re quite cordial. But many stories are split right down the middle; half love it, half gave it a ‘no.’ Those are the kinds of stories I like to publish, actually, because it’s a testament to my belief that not every story will resonate with everyone. So if there is passion on either side, I know it will strike some kind of chord with a set of readers. I hope that makes sense. I love when people root for a story! I should add that our reading panel is diverse in make-up, a good cross-section of the greater creative nonfiction audience.

Justice: I think disagreements most often stem from a personal distaste for the subject matter. Reading is subjective, and not everyone will like the same thing.

Kevin: Absolutely. While there are pieces that we all agree on, the ones we disagree on are the ones that stick out for me. That conflict shows it’s thought-provoking. When there’s a disagreement, it brings out a passion in each of us. Some of the best stories we’ve had were the ones we were on the fence about. That’s what makes Hippocampus a great community, there’s a great push and pull. Without that there would be no quality; everything would get through. The disagreement almost helps us become a better reading panel because we learn from each other; reading someone else’s comment might allow us to see what we might have overlooked in a piece.

Q. Do you lean toward essays that are personal stories or more research-based? – Sarah

Donna: Personal stories. I’m not very interested in academic pieces being in Hippocampus, but I love, love, love literary journalism. I think, constantly, about adding that as a section. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’ve learned a LOT from reading essays in Hippocampus, but they weren’t meant to be research-pieces per se; the writing just naturally informed as it entertained. Just today I learned that “sanrinsha” is the Japanese word for “tricycle.” I love when writing takes me places, teaches me things—without effort.

Q. Since you don’t have sales of a hardcopy, how do you know how well you are doing? – Mike, near Pittsburgh

Donna: I’m a data nerd. Not as hardcore as some of my web peers, but I dig in. I look at current trends and compare, over time, metrics like page views, time on site, new and returning visitors, and our geographical reach. I also look at engagement stats: social shares, comments, retweets, etc. Finally, I look at our email newsletter subscriber list growth, and, in our monthly emails, I look at open rates and click rates. Basically, all of these numbers give me a good picture of how our content is doing with our readers—what they’re reading, what they’re sharing and what’s NOT getting their attention.

Q. How much time does it take to put together and publish your magazine? – Mike

Donna: Well now that you just got me to admit how much I love data, I have to confess that tracking hours spent on the magazine is intelligence I have yet to collect! I’m looking into a few free tools to track the time I spend doing everything on the computer, mostly because I’m curious and want to get a better handle on my own organized chaos. So my anecdotal answer is: A LOT.

I spend about 10 to 15 hours during a regular week, and probably about 20 or more the week the new issue goes live. Each day, in larger chunks of time, I read submissions and make decisions; in smaller windows, I’ll reply to general emails, correspond with staff members, interact with the audience on Twitter and Facebook, and just think. Thinking does indeed take up time! Every few days, I assign submissions to our volunteer reading panel. About once a month, I’ll send out review copies and assign copy editors stories. Then, during new issue week, it gets intense! That’s when the heavy lifting magic happens. When you add everyone’s time together—all the people who have a hand in building the issue—it’s probably easily over 200 hours of work per issue. Our readers read A LOT.

Q. I’m curious to know what story or stories have been the most memorable for the other members of reading panel staff. – Kevin, from the reading panel staff, Lancaster, Pa.

Pamela: Lessons in Sign, Variations on Prayer, and the Grand Hotel Mackinac Island. Oh, and the one about addiction and the ducks, These Violent Delights Have Violent Endings. I cannot stop thinking of that essay. I also very much liked the one about the woman whose mother was dying and she filtered the process through cooking and gardening.

Kevin: I’ll answer my own question. I can’t remember the title, but the one about the blind man and his “wedding.” That was such an amazing story. And “Who Watches The Guachiman?” I really like that one. It just sticks in my mind. And, you know what, “How to Attend an Indian Funeral.” What I loved about and what’s so memorable about it is that there was two stories going on at once. The reality was in the footnotes.

Q. How do you juggle maintaining the magazine along with your regular full time job and your own creative endeavors? – Angie, Bethlehem, Pa.

Donna: Can I get back to you? I have some balls to clean up. In all seriousness, my goal for 2015 is to get better at balancing it all. I started a blog called Getting All the Sh*t Done to help track my progress, but even that fell to the wayside.

Q. Are staff members allowed to contribute their work for submission? – Angie

Donna: Good question. The short answer is: yes. Because we have a blind-reading process, I think it is acceptable to allow someone with a love for creative nonfiction to be considered for publication in our magazine, too. Contests, however, are off limits to staff. However, while the option is there, we have published only a few pieces by staff members; we have lovingly and respectfully declined others. Also, it’s interesting to note that many reading panel members and a few reviewers and copy editors joined our staff at some point AFTER they were published in Hippocampus. These writers are some of the most loyal and dedicated staff members, too. It feels good for people to love your magazine so much that they want to be involved.

Q. How long does it take for a piece to be accepted and then appear in print? In other words, if a piece is accepted tomorrow, will it appear within the next month’s issue? – Angie

Donna: It varies. We read all year and try to plan a few issues ahead. Usually when a piece gets accepted, it will appear two or three issues down the road. Sometimes it could appear in the next issue if there ended up being a gap to fill. Every so often we’ll hold a story longer if it makes sense to publish it during a specific month. We accepted a story called 4-20 back in September; I wanted to hold it until April. (And, no, it’s not exactly what you think! Come back April 1 to see!)

Q. From your idea of this lit magazine to its actual inception and launch, how much time passed? – Angie

Donna: Angie, wow, thanks for all these thoughtful questions! I came up with the idea—the name actually—during a June 2010 creative writing residency as part of an in-class activity; I bought the domain name right away, but I didn’t seriously begin planning the magazine until January 2011, about a half a year later. I had thought about it for months, but I finally said it out loud to someone (Taylor Polites, at Wilkes, when he asked me, “What are you working on?”) Saying it made it real, which meant, I HAD to do it. The behind-the-scenes work began immediately, and the first issue went live in May 2011. I wanted to give myself plenty of time to get things in order because I believe in this saying: “Take off like a rocket, fizzle like a rocket.”

Q. OK. We’ll end this by going back to asking! Each July Hippocampus publishes a theme issue. So far we covered rock ‘n roll, road trips and, last year, weather and Mother Nature. Our annual reader survey asked people to weigh in on theme ideas and the top contender was nostalgia. Since then, we had a few others ideas: guilty pleasures and vices, colors, and firsts. Which one do you like best? -Donna

You: Share your answer in this poll or in the comments below.

We hope that this reverse interview gave you a nice glimpse into Hippocampus! Thanks to Sarah, Justice, Angie, Mike, Kevin and Tara for the questions!


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