Philip Graham is the author of two story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design; a novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language; and he is the co-author of two memoirs of Africa, Parallel Worlds (winner of the Victor Turner Prize), and the forthcoming Braided Worlds. His most recent book is The Moon, Come to Earth, an expanded version of his series of McSweeney’s dispatches from Lisbon. Graham’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, North American Review, Fiction, Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere, and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Poets & Writers Magazine, and the Washington Post. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, two Illinois Arts Council awards, and the William Peden Prize, Graham teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a founding editor of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter.
Tell me about Ninth Letter.
In the official language of the Academy, Ninth Letter is jointly sponsored by the Department of English and the School of Art and Design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; it is an interdisciplinary collaborative project that attracts people interested in the intersection of written and visual culture.
How did it get started?
We had a literary magazine some time ago but it was no longer being published. After UIUC started an MFA program in the early 2000s, we researched other magazines to come up with a budget and proposed it to our Chancellor, who approved the funding. We published our first issue in 2004 and have released 2 issues a year ever since.
Who makes up your staff?
There are about 30 people who help put together the magazine. Jodee Stanley is the editor, I am the fiction editor, and we have various other faculty editors in different departments and genres. In addition, we have six editorial assistants each year, who are paid students from the MFA program, either creative writing or art and design. Afterwards, they often go on to teach the introduction to creative writing classes, so working on the magazine really helps them learn how to critique student pieces. Education is one of our most important priorities, working with the students and the writers to create the best publication possible. These assistantships last for a semester, so that we are always getting new voices and new points of view.
Who do you publish?
The magazine is associated with the University and edited by faculty and students, but we are open to submissions nationally and internationally. In the past, we’ve published Tomaz Salamun, Yann Martel, Oscar Hijuelos, and George Singleton, as well as many writers who have never been published before.
How many submissions do you get a year? How many do you publish?
We receive probably between 2,000 to 3,000 fiction submissions a year. We have room for about 16 short stories. That’s why we have to be sure we love a piece before we’ll print it. If we have a mixed opinion about the work during the editing meeting, then we table it for a week and come back to it again with fresh eyes before deciding.
Are your submissions anonymous?
No. We like to work with writers. We want to know who they are. Sometimes when we reject a story, we ask to see more work from the author, or a revision. I’ve spoke on the phone with writers. It’s an educational experience, for both the writer and the staff.
I’ve also had to reject friends before. It sucked. It really sucked. But I wanted the students who work on the magazine to know that it sucks but that you have to do it. You’ve got to love the story if you’re going to publish it. The magazine comes first.
The art and design team are obviously very involved in the magazine. Tell me about your collaboration with them.
That’s one of my favorite things about the magazine, designing the prose pages. As soon as we accept a piece we send it on to the art and design team to read, then we all meet together and talk about our inspirations and conceptions of the piece. Then art and design take the ideas generated in the meeting and make that come to life. It’s very exciting to see the final creation. I’m happy to be able to say that nearly all of the writers we’ve published have also been satisfied with the artwork.
The writers are very important to us. Once a year we bring in writers from each genre who have published work in Ninth Letter to read, kind of like a mini-Meacham conference, for a one to two-day celebration.
Thank you so much for talking with us and for visiting our conference!
Interviewed by Katie Christie
Ninth Letter’s fantastic web site can be found at http://www.ninthletter.com/
More information about Philip Graham is available at his bio page on the Meacham Writers’ Conference website, http://www.meachamwriters.org/writers/philip-graham.htm where you can also listen to a podcast of his reading.