Interviewed by Dorothy Rice
Have you ever wondered how those inspiring, packed-house Hippocampus Magazine, FOURTH GENRE, River Teeth, and Under the Gum Tree offsite readings at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference come together? Janna Marlies Maron, editor and publisher at Gum Tree dishes the details.
Janna is a professional editor with nearly 20 years of experience helping writers complete projects and produce their best work. She’s served as a magazine editor, college professor, agency editorial director, and content director for a popular internet brand. In addition to founding and editing Under the Gum Tree—a fine arts and nonfiction journal founded in 2011 and based in Sacramento, California—she hosts a podcast dedicated to CNF called More to the Story and runs a private online community for nonfiction writers, also called More to the Story.
It was a pleasure to interview Janna about the AWP offsite readings and related matters.
Dorothy Rice: I understand that prior to the joint readings, you organized two offsite readings with just Gum Tree authors at AWP in Seattle and Minneapolis (2014 and 2015) and then an initial reading with just one other nonfiction journal, FOURTH GENRE at AWP 2016 in Los Angeles.
I’m curious to know more about how the LA collaboration with FOURTH GENRE came about and how that joint AWP offsite reading grew to what it has been for the last several years, a beloved and anticipated event for the broader CNF community (readers and authors both), with readings from four esteemed journals: Hippocampus Magazine, FOURTH GENRE, River Teeth, and Under the Gum Tree. Let’s start with that first reading with FOURTH GENRE in 2016. How did that happen?
Janna Marlies Maron: I was sharing a booth at the NonfictioNOW conference in Arizona with Laura Julier who, at the time, was the long-time editor at FOURTH GENRE. We already knew each other from prior AWPs and had agreed to share the cost of the table and to share staffing at this conference. Among other things, we talked about whether we thought Gum Tree was the only exclusively CNF event at AWP, and if I recall we both thought that it was.
Most of the other lit journals were doing all genres. At that point, I had done two events at AWP with just Gum Tree. Laura and I discussed joining forces at AWP in LA the following year.
DR: Which I know happened because I was there!
JMM: It did! The 2016 Los Angeles AWP event with FOURTH GENRE was held at a rooftop venue with an amazing view, and it was a huge success. We each picked four readers who had published in our journals. The audience was super enthusiastic. Laura and I both sensed that we had hit a pocket of need within the AWP community.
The next year was 2017 in D.C., right after the 2016 election. We were joined there by River Teeth, with three readers per journal. Laura and I had invited other nonfiction journals, including Hippocampus, which wasn’t able to participate as they had a book launch scheduled for the same evening.
DR: And how was the D.C. event? This was on the heels of the very contentious presidential election, right?
JMM: We had a great turnout there too even though it was cold and a smaller, indoor venue (a bar). I was really struck by the power of the event at that particular time and the diverse array of readers and topics we had. The three participating journals hadn’t compared notes or talked about what readers we were bringing or their material. It all just came about organically, and at that time with what our country was going through socially and politically and all the divisiveness, the powerful connection of shared personal stories felt like what we all really needed. It almost felt like an act of defiance to be sharing these words in the seat of our nation’s political power. And we were close to the convention center, so it was super convenient which also helped.
DR: What about location?
JMM: Yeah, that has always been an important part of my strategy. To be within walking distance or near public transportation to make it as convenient and accessible as possible for AWP attendees, friends, and family. And to be at a venue that offers affordable food and drink. There is so much going on at AWP and so many competing events. We wanted to make it easy for people to get there right after the conference ends and the Bookfair closes for the day, to grab a quick dinner, and still make it to another evening event if that’s what you want to do or go out for a late dinner.
Also to keep the event short and sweet—an hour to an hour and a half tops, by adhering to strict time limits, five minutes per reader, with eight readers total, two per journal.
DR: And how does the coordination amongst the mags work?
JMM: Really well. With the exception of this year, when Joey Franklin with FOURTH GENRE pitched in (huge shout-out to Joey and FOURTH GENRE) I have scouted out the venue, made those arrangements, and sent out the coordination emails. Each journal selects two readers, and it’s all worked out really well.
DR: Did COVID throw a huge monkey wrench into the offsite reading plans?
JMM: We actually had an amazing AWP event (in San Antonio) in 2020! All four journals were there. The conference and bookfair were weird because they didn’t consolidate the bookfair even though a lot of people canceled, so you walked through rows and rows without booths before hitting on one—it was like a ghost town in that huge hall.
I didn’t have a booth that year, so I wandered around this echoing bookfair. But folks who did have tables said they weren’t disappointed because the connections they did make were more meaningful; they had the time for actual conversations. And we still had great attendance; our offsite event was at a bar around the corner from the convention center. And this was actually before COVID restrictions were in place, in early March.
It was a moment in history no one will ever forget. In a way, AWP felt more organic and creative than usual that year. It felt as if speakers were canceling and dropping off panels minute-to-minute and new people were being added, so there was a very spontaneous feel to many events which doesn’t usually characterize AWP.
DR: What has surprised you about the offsite readings? Any unexpected outcomes?
JMM: Honestly, I am constantly amazed by the nonfiction community, by the people who rally around to share their true stories at these events. It’s such a wonderful and unique opportunity to bring this community together and for me personally, it’s an honor to stand in front of them. It’s clear that people are looking for these opportunities, and that they want them.
The genre is still a bit of the red-headed stepchild of the literary world. One of the reasons I started Gum Tree in 2011 is that I had just graduated from graduate school and didn’t see a lot of opportunities for publication in the genre. And here we are, almost thirteen years later and it’s still the case and every time we host an event the interest is there and growing.
DR: A bit off topic, but along those lines, when you started Gum Tree twelve years ago, did you expect the magazine would still be going in 2023?
JMM: No! I had no expectations. I hadn’t been out of the consumer magazine business long. I figured I’d do it as long as it seemed manageable and people were interested. Going to AWP and interacting with people is a big reason why I keep doing it. Paying our contributors has always been a goal, and I’m still not able to do that. I attempt to pay key volunteer staff and that’s not always possible either. I question whether to keep going or whether I should pivot to digital only.
AWP is the only place where I have so many encounters with writers (30 to 50 per conference) who tell me how wonderful their experience has been publishing with us and how excited they were to get their print copy and how beautiful it is. And people who aren’t published in the magazine say the same thing when they hold the hard copy in their hands. Each time I attend AWP I come away from the conference and offsite reading thinking that I can keep going, that I can keep publishing the magazine, I can keep doing this. It rejuvenates me and reminds me why I do this, what it’s for, and why it matters.
In terms of the joint readings, I think we’re better together and we can accomplish more and reach a broader audience if we combine our energies. That’s all I ever wanted out of this work: to collaborate with other people doing similar work, work that makes people feel good about themselves, work that connects us to one another.
So much is online nowadays. For some writers, their publication in Under the Gum Tree may be the only time they see their work in a journal like this, with this level of full-color artwork and presentation.
DR: Thanks for sharing all of this with me, Janna. Any final thoughts?
JMM: I encourage you to contact the other three journals. The offsite readings are a collaboration and I’d like them to be part of this interview.
So, at Janna’s suggestion, I reached out to her principal contacts at the three other journals: Laura Julier (former and long-time Editor at FOURTH GENRE; Joey Franklin, one of two current editors in chief at FOURTH GENRE; Jill Christman, senior editor at River Teeth; and Donna Talarico, Founder, Publisher & Managing Editor of Hippocampus Magazine.
Via an email exchange, Laura described her conversations with Janna at the NonfictioNOW conference in Arizona:
This was when I realized what an energetic and creative planner Janna is! Given my teaching and administrative work requirements on top of editing FOURTH GENRE, I could not have even imagined how to make such a thing happen. I was also caring long distance for my dying mother. I had undergraduate interns, who were very talented and enthusiastic, but this sort of thing was not in any of their toolboxes. I give all the credit to Janna’s planning and organizing for making that happen.
Each of the readings—the two you mention above and the one in Tampa (AWP 2018)—was inspiring, to me and to my interns, and I think for the writers, too, Laura wrote. I loved meeting the authors in person; I loved seeing who they brought to the readings and hearing the words in their own voices. The off-site readings gave life to the original essays beyond being printed on the page, and I loved that. The readings were truly a celebration of nonfiction and the journals devoted to and highlighting nonfiction as a genre.
Joey, with FOURTH GENRE, responded via email that his first joint offsite with Hippocampus, River Teeth, and Under the Gum Tree was at AWP 2020, in San Antonio:
It was right before the pandemic, he wrote. We were on the second floor of a little bar and it was so great to see everyone show up for nonfiction. AWP is so big, and Janna’s work putting together this reading each year makes it easier for CNF folks to find their community. It’s a real service. I look forward to it every year.
Jill, with River Teeth, expressed that she’s consistently delighted by the large crowd the collective of creative nonfiction magazines draws:
I hope we can continue to have them together in fabulous places! From a pedagogical standpoint, I love the offsite events because a fundamental lesson we impart to our editing and publishing students is that literary magazines stick together to support each other—the work, the writers, and the readers, Jill wrote, adding, the events aren’t the same when Janna herself isn’t there!
That’s a sentiment I certainly share, though it must also be said that Joey Franklin and others stepped up and did an amazing job at AWP 2023. And last, but certainly not least, Donna Talarico shared several takeaways from the joint readings:
Aside from continually being awed by the talent every year, my biggest takeaway from the joint offsite events is that we’re stronger together as a community. It also just logistically makes sense. There can be a bit of decision paralysis and event fatigue (and literal fatigue!) that happens at a conference as big as AWP. So, putting together a bigger, robust reading is better for the organizations AND for attendees who’d like to hear CNF readers and support lit mags. It’s also better for the budget to share costs. Sometimes venues will give the space for free for the promise of food and beverage expenditures, while others rent the space, and the latter can be pricey and put things out of reach for many, many organizations that operate on a shoestring budget.
Donna had this to add:
Even the best literary citizens can’t keep up with every issue of every magazine, so a joint-CNF reading that spans content and contributors from four magazines is an excellent way to learn about writers and publications they might not be as familiar with—and then to meet and mingle with other folks in an informal setting (outside the conference halls!), so it’s just all around a great way to explore new corners of CNF. Of course, old friends can meet up at these too, but the newness factor, for me, is an incredible added-value aspect!
And that, I do believe, is a wise and excellent note to end on, one which beautifully echoes something Janna said earlier in this interview—that all she ever wanted out of this work was to connect with other people doing similar work, work that brings us together in meaningful ways, through writing and sharing our true stories.