Interview: David Ewald, creative nonfiction editor at Eclectia Magazine and its anthology, Best Nonfiction Volume One

Interview by Donna Talarico

Electica nonfiction coverWith more than two decades behind it, Eclectica Magazine is certainly a pioneer in the online magazine space. To commemorate its 20-year anniversary, the journal in late 2016, released a series of print anthologies, in poetry, fiction, speculative, and, our favorite genre, nonfiction. Eclectica’s Best Nonfiction Volume One is now available.

I spoke with nonfiction editor David Ewald via Skype while he was on break between high school English classes, complete with a few bells sounding in the background. We chatted about his role with Eclectica, the print anthology, and what he’s looking for in submissions. Parts of our conversation have been edited or abbreviated for length and clarity.

DONNA: Tell me a bit about how you got involved with Eclectica. I know from your intro that you began in 2012, but for readers who haven’t read the intro, tell us a little about your start.  

DAVID: I got out of grad school—from the University of Notre Dame with an MFA—in 2003. I moved to L.A. and worked in an office, in a marketing department for an industrial supply company, and I was finding my way as a writer. In grad school, I had written a novel but it needed a lot of work. I ended up working for a literary agent in Hollywood for a little while and that was a really good experience, too.

I hadn’t published much after graduating, but I had a [fiction] story that I’d been tossing around for a while, and I had sent it to McSweeney’s and some other places, but I found Eclectica, just by chance, in late 2006. And I submitted there—it wasn’t the first place I was published, but it was one of the more legitimate first places to publish me during that time, since graduating. It was really exciting. [Managing editor] Tom Dooley wrote me and said it was great; it was published in January 2007.

I kept Eclectica off my radar for a while, and then I decided in early 2012 to submit some essays—I was starting to turn toward nonfiction at that time—then Tom accepted those, and then he put a call out on Facebook for editors, and I felt I missed my chance with other publications before… and I kind of regretted it. I was sending a lot of my work out, and some of it was published, and I was getting rejections as well. I thought, “I could be doing more with my literary life right now…” I feel like I’m good at editing, that I have a knack for it… So, when Tom put out a call for editors and there was a call for a nonfiction position, I was like, “OK! I’ll do it.”

So, I was published with Electica, but it took five years to join the magazine as an editor. I wanted to be part of the deciding what got published in a magazine rather than just sending my stuff out there.

 

DONNA: OK, so you had a relationship, but then you watched from afar for a couple years, and now you’re a part of it.

DAVID: I would recommend for writers, if they have an opportunity, to volunteer as a reader or do some kind of editing work because it really changed my perspective on what it takes for something to be published… I realized, I’m getting all of these rejections because my work is not that good. [laughs] I’m seeing all this stuff that’s coming to me as an editor and I’m like, “Oh my god. I think editors are looking at my stuff in the same way.” One thing [being an editor] helped with is that it stopped me from sending out so many submissions willy-nilly… I was one of those writers… Being an editor for Eclectica helped calm me down as a writer; within a few issues, I [decided] to take my time and not send so much out.

DONNA: OK, great. I’m gonna circle back to how this helped your writing, but first, I want to talk about the anthology a little bit. It’s the 20th anniversary, and Eclectica put out a number of anthologies—fiction, poetry—and I read a little about the goals for this project on the Kickstarter description, but for the sake of this interview and our readers, share with us why this project came together.

DAVID: I had recommended to Tom that we had to do something because 20 years is a big deal. A lot of magazines end up folding in five to 10 years, and, obviously, there are older ones. But Eclectica is really one of the oldest ones that is surviving. And it’s amazing because it hasn’t updated its layout much at all… I thought that, as a reader, it’s tough to just go through these archives online. So why not have a best-of anthology and make it print, because it’d be nice to actually hold something in your hands. And we decided on it, and we had to generate the funds and, luckily, the Kickstarter came through.

I’m happy to see the book actually here…. instead of trying to go through and find the best stories, I found it for the readers.

DONNA: That leads me to my next question. You went through everything and you found the best-of. 20 years is a long time. How did you choose the stories, and what were some of the challenges you had in narrowing things down?

DAVID: It was challenging, and it took me some time, it really did. It took more time than I thought it would. I had read Eclectica before, even before submitting the first time, but I hadn’t read in-depth as I needed to as an editor. I would click on the archives, and realize that, wow, there’s a lot here—and it went back to late 1996.

David ewald author photo

David Ewald

DONNA: Oh wow.

DAVID: And some of the pieces, early on, it was obvious that there wasn’t as much of an idea of what the nonfiction [section] would be at that point. There was no nonfiction editor at that time, and [the stories] were more of diatribes and political pieces. I’m more into creative nonfiction, where it reads like a story and has that narrative quality to it. In this anthology, I published a few that are more on the essay side, without the narrative—such as Norman Ball’s “Dining on the Future” which is … more of an ideas piece. But I definitely had to take my time with a lot of material…. I looked at our spotlight authors, which are the ones who get nominated for the best of the best of that issue. So, if they got a spotlight nomination or were somehow singled out for their work and they were nonfiction, I really looked closely at them. One would be—it has a very provocative title—the one by Thomas Larson called “A Few Photographs of Molested Children.” I looked at that one and said, “Yeah, this one’s going in.”

DONNA: Going along with that, these were essays from over 20 years, with all different themes and different kinds of nonfiction. How did you decide how to arrange them?

DAVID: That’s difficult. I had to rely a bit on instinct as an editor, to try to create a kind of flow from idea to idea, or place to place. Now, many of the pieces in here are travel related. So, [in arranging them] I was going by places in some way, too. It didn’t start out that way, but by the end of [reading] Norman Ball’s “Dining on the Future,” which was set on Wall Street, I wondered if there was anything else about New York. And then I thought about Julia Braun Kessler and her “Our Own Mid-Century Mannahatta.” And I thought, let’s bring her in next. And then there’s John Palcewski’s “Patroness of the Arts” which is also about Manhattan. And then V.K. Reiter with “Living/Tango.” They are all about New York in different time periods—the 40s or the 60s or the 2000s.

From there, it was immigration with Ikhide Ikheloa and his “Cow Foot by Candlelight” which is about coming from Africa to America, and then I just kept with the travel thing to Eastern Europe down into Mexico and Central America, and I kept with that, with place. But I needed an essay to start out with, and I thought, well, there’s Stanley Jenkins, who is a big Eclectia contributor and has an essay called ‘Twenty Years.” Tom helped out with that choice, too. I thought 20 years with the magazine and we have an essay called “Twenty Years” — that was interesting and a good way to start off the collection.

DONNA: After you made your choices, what responses did you get from the contributors after they heard the news from you, that their work was going to go from online to print – sometimes after many years?

DAVID: The biggest challenge was getting in touch with some of these authors. Because some of them were from the late 90s and early 2000s—and I would email them [with the addresses we had listed on their stories] and I would get bouncebacks. So, it took Facebook—and, really Tom—to help out quite a bit, because he was connected to many of them through Facebook. But, really, the response was overwhelmingly positive. There were only a couple that either didn’t respond or had some reservations about including their work. There were other stories I really wanted to include, but we just couldn’t track them down [for confirmation]. It was challenging, but everyone was supportive. Eclectica has been helped greatly by its fan base and contributors.

DONNA: Well I think that speaks volumes to the support you get because, you know, you hit the Kickstarter goal, and not everybody does that, so that’s good. Now that anthology is here [holds up anthology on screen], and you’re holding it, how do you feel? I mean, it must be a proud moment.

DAVID: I feel great because it’s the first book I’ve had a bigger hand in—it feels good to hold it and know that I had a big hand in getting this out.

DONNA: What’s been the response from reader so far?

DAVID: Positive overall. There’ve been a couple reviews online, but I would like to have more reviews. People are citing the good work in it. There’s great work in here, some longer pieces, really long pieces, that other editors might have shied away from. “Living/Tango” is really one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time. It reads like—I can almost see it on the screen—I can really see it. And then Stuart Gelzer’s “The Watermelon Hunter” is another really lengthy one, but it’s travel, and it’s fantastic.

DONNA: Yeah, that one really stuck with me. I remembered that one for days after.

DAVID: [Going back to the response question] I think we’d like to spread the word more, get more requests for review copies. And, on that end, we’re planning, this spring, to have a reading somewhere in California in the Central Valley or the Bay Area, to invite Eclectica contributors—anyone who’s been published in the magazine—to read their work.

DONNA: Well I hope that this interview, which runs in March, will help with spreading the word. So, going back to the essays that you chose—and I said this in the introduction—how some of them are still so timely and some are timeless. Can you talk about some of the themes that are in here, and how they might still be relevant today, even though they were written 10, 20 years ago?

DAVID: Yeah – some even more now, post 9/11. We have a stranger-in-a-strange-land motif here. There’s Lyn Fuchs’s “Dying with Dignity Mexican-Style” – definitely a provocative essay. There are descriptions and details that some readers may recoil at, perhaps, but it’s all tongue-in-cheek and done with respect. And there’s definitely a sense of “I am not from here” and “I am out of place,” and, frankly, many Americans may feel that way about their own country.

DONNA: Oh yeah.

DAVID: But I think that’s why a lot of these are about travel. [The writers] are out of place, like in “The Pied Piper of Damascus” by Lisa Ohlen Harris or “Sand Memories” by Kathleen McCall. Those are two that tackle the Middle East a little bit; they’re about how [the writers] are put into an environment that they’re not familiar with and how they react and what they learned from it. And it also helps that the anthology ends with Monika Lange’s “The World and I” where it comes around full circle in a way … She was born in Poland and is now in the United States with a husband who is of a different ethnicity and a daughter. And, yet, she feels at home, and I think that’s the idea with the anthology.

DONNA: Going back to the magazine, as a creative nonfiction editor, what do you look for—and what are you not looking for? In case readers are looking for somewhere to submit.

DAVID: One of my creative writing instructors said in undergrad—he gave the best feedback—he gave feedback to someone else in the class, said “This is really brittle.” And I can really tell, early on, if a piece that was submitted is brittle. And I don’t mean it can literally break, obviously, but one that doesn’t have much depth to it. One that’s not so challenging. I can see this with the travel pieces that are submitted, that they’re about an experience, an anecdote. Here’s what happened on my trip, but there’s nothing there that has a deeper meaning … to reach the readers… I really enjoy when writers play with form and structure; I’m not looking for gimmicks [though]. And I really appreciate challenging narratives.

DONNA: How has being involved with Eclectica as the nonfiction editor changed you as both a writer and as a human?

DAVID: It has made me a better human. As my wife can attest, it’s made me less neurotic about writing. It’s calmed me a little bit—I think I said this earlier—in the sense that, “OK. I don’t have to have a long list of publications; I just have to have meaningful publications that matter to me, that I feel good publishing in them. I have children now, and if I had been my same self as I had been years ago, I don’t think I’d be a very good father or a husband. I joined Eclectica the year before my kids were born, so it came at the right time…. I feel my writing is better and that I’ve written a little less, which may be healthy for me in some ways, too. Now, I’m just focused more on life. I’d still like to publish things, but I’m not as panicked about it. I’m content—I don’t know if I was content for a while.

DONNA: What’s next for Eclectica, and what’s next for you?

DAVID: Well, we have the readings coming up starting in April… And we’ll just keep on trucking with our submissions and our issues.

DONNA: And what about you, personally?

DAVID: I’m working on a memoir, and I don’t want to say too much about it yet, but it’s about fatherhood, being a husband, and something that has come into my life recently, which is a diagnosis—so I’m working bringing that together. It’s one that I have a lot of momentum for.

DONNA: Well, I’m really looking forward to hearing more about how everything goes with the anthologies and with the readings. I appreciate the time you spent today; thank you!

DAVID: Thank you.

 

Eclectica Hoopla Reading Details:

June 11, 2017
2 to 4 p.m.
Bird and Beckett Bookshop in San Francisco

Check its website or social accounts for other anthology-related readings and events.

Learn more about or connect with Eclectica:

Interviewer/Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, I was invited to write the foreword to this Best Nonfiction Volume One collection. But I did not want that honor to limit Hippocampus Magazine’s support of another creative nonfiction endeavor, so we opted for an interview in place of a review. -DT

Additional editor’s note: This post was updated March 29 to reflect a change in date for the Hoopla event; the event previously was scheduled for April 8 in Modesto.

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