Faculty Spotlight: Elizabeth McKenzie

By Amy Lutz, MCWC Executive Assistant

If you were at the closing dinner of MCWC 2017, you would have heard the exciting announcement that in 2018, our Master Class instructor will be Elizabeth McKenzie.  Elizabeth’s latest novel, The Portable Veblen was long listed for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and won a 2017 California Book Award silver medal. An earlier novel, MacGregor Tells the World, was a Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal Best Book of the Year.  Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology among many other publications, and have been recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her debut collection, Stop That Girl, was short-listed for the Story Prize.

We sat down to speak to Elizabeth about her experiences as both an editor and writer of short and novel-length fiction.

You were an assistant fiction editor at The Atlantic, and you’re now senior editor at the Chicago Quarterly Review and managing editor at Catamaran Literary Reader. How has being an editor helped you as a writer?

This is such a good question, and important to me. Nothing’s been a better education for me as a writer than reading manuscripts by fellow writers over the years. Sure, it’s vital to read great literature and published work, which is the main kind of reading we do, but seeing work in its various stages pre-publication—manuscripts that are often quite good but missing something, that are only partly developed or go off course at the end—that’s invaluable because all of our work suffers from problems as it progresses, and you become comfortable with the process in all its stages. Rather than despising a story that’s not ready, you understand that it’s simply a little premature. It’s helped me identify problems in my own work, and it’s given me enough exposure to have a sense of what’s original. And what’s overused too—i.e., starting a story in a bar. Argh! There are too many stories that start in bars, I can assure you.

And then there’s the inverse: how being a writer has helped me as an editor. I want to make sure the work looks exactly the way the writer wants it and I really want the writer to be proud to see his or her work in the magazine. After publication, it’s important to make sure all the anthologies get a chance to see the work to consider it for inclusion and prizes. All these small steps along the way mean a lot.

In your interview in Publisher’s Weekly: “Q&A with editor Ed Park,” it is apparent that you had a great working relationship with your editor. What advice do you have for writers on how to work with editors?

Well, Ed Park was a once in a lifetime editor—sadly for me, he’s now left Penguin Press. (But good for him, because he’s a terrific writer and can work on his novel now.) Anyway, his suggestions for my novel were excellent, and I’m sure I took them all. Sometimes an editor will give advice and the writer will explain why the advice doesn’t make sense, and then both parties will realize that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the cause of the problem. Other times, it’s a matter of taste, and writer and editor are just not on the same page. The advice I’d give is that when you and your editor don’t agree on something, work through it and try to figure out if you’re really talking about the same thing.

In the same article, you said “And because I’d been working on this book so long, I knew it was hairy, like a rescued castaway who at last has the chance to shower and be shorn and pruned and have all the knots and burrs pulled out.” What a great description! How did you sustain your momentum on your manuscript over such a long period of time? How was it different, better or worse, than writing short fiction?

Also a great question. It was so hairy, in fact, that there was no way out. I was involved in a huge struggle, and the more time I spent on it the more desperate I became to make sure it counted. Not finishing it became out of the question for me, no matter how long it took. I guess I sustained myself by enjoying the small signs of success that would come along the way—a sentence or new idea that I was happy about. And my writing group helped too, because they were really encouraging. That kind of struggle occasionally happens with short stories too—I have a few around that I’ve been working on for years, and they’ve never quite shaped up. Then again, I’ve written and finished stories in a few days or weeks. Those were the lucky times.

In an interview for the UC Santa Cruz Newscenter, you discussed your love of beat poets and that you took some poetry classes at UCSC. In another interview with LA Review of Books you mentioned working on translations and how the work helps pull you out of your own writing habits. As both a writer and an editor, you seem to have a very wide range. How has this genre-jumping strengthened your writing?

Well, working on translations introduces you intimately to another writer’s techniques, and that’s always good. I also wrote a number of scripts with a partner years back and that was a great exercise for me—understanding three act structure, etc. And poetry laser-focuses a writer on words and the music of language. The more tools you have, the better.

You have produced acclaimed work in both short fiction and novel-length fiction. Do you prefer one form over the other? How are the challenges and skills required for both similar or different?

It’s hard to say, they both have their own rewards. But I probably feel best when I’m thrashing around inside a long piece. During that time, I have an alternate universe to play around in and go to. The alternate universe eventually gains a kind of gravity that makes me alive and awake to things around me in a new way, and I have a place to put those impressions. What is fun about short fiction is that you can have a strange idea and test it out without turning over your whole life to it.

You recently presented a fiction workshop at the Catamaran Conference that included both short and long form fiction. Do you focus your instruction on common craft between the two forms, or do you have specific advice for each? What do you plan to present as the Master Class workshop for MCWC 2018?

I’d say both. Talking about stories rubs off on talking about novels. There’s a lot of overlap, but lots to say specifically about each, too. I’d like to discuss any issues that rise out of the work we’ll be reading itself, as well as structure, voice, defamiliarization, how to revise imaginatively, and anything else anybody wants to bring up.

To take part in this intimate discussion of writing with Elizabeth McKenzie, submit for her Master Class at MCWC 2018. You can sign up here to be notified as soon as registration opens. And keep an eye out here for more introductions to MCWC 2018 faculty!