Interview with Alyce Wilson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Alyce Wilson, whose web page proclaims her as “writer, editor, poet.” Alyce, which one of those tags best describes you?

ALYCE WILSON: It depends on the day! I would say, though, that I’ve probably considered myself a poet longer, since that started back in second grade, courtesy of a very enthusiastic teacher, Mrs. Johnnie Stahl, who taught us how to write rhyming verse. But I have to admit that I don’t necessarily write poetry every day, while I do tend to write something in prose every day. So perhaps “writer” is more apropos right now.

VENTRELLA: Tell us a little about how you became involved in the business.

WILSON: I love the Joseph Campbell quote, “When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors; and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.” That’s what I’ve been doing. Aside for a brief flirtation with the idea of being a teacher, I’ve known from a very young age that I wanted to have a career in writing. The question has always been where and how?

In high school, I had an excellent journalism teacher, Mrs. Maryann Hoff, and began to consider that as a possible career path. But by the time I got around to declaring my major at Penn State University, I had fallen in love with radio (thanks to the college radio station, WPSU) and selected Broadcast/Cable. Perhaps if I had been less of a country mouse (raised in a small Pennsylvania town, as I was), I would have immediately sought out employment opportunities at a public radio station after graduation, but instead I felt directionless. The radio jobs available in small towns didn’t appeal to me, but I couldn’t imagine moving to a city. Fortunately, my decision to return to school, like the proverbial groundhog, waiting out six more weeks of winter, brought me to Penn State’s MFA program in Poetry. If I hadn’t panicked at the idea of city life, I wouldn’t have learned such valuable lessons that improved my poetry writing immensely.

Much as I loved grad school, however, I rebelled against the idea of remaining in academia. By that point, I had taught several undergraduate writing courses in essays and poetry, and I loved the students but hated the bureaucracy. I feared that pursuing such a career would be soul-killing and especially damaging to my writing. Instead, I felt it was important to experience life. So in my “hippie days,” I married a wispy dreamer, traveled up the Mississippi, and then took a job as a pizza delivery driver in my hometown (which served as inspiration for my second unfinished novel). Just about the time that my short-lived first marriage petered out, I found a job with the local newspaper (“The Standard-Journal,” Milton, Pennsylvania) as a reporter/assistant editor. This again, was the best thing for me, because it helped me to perfect my skills as a columnist.

However, the daily deadlines were highly stressful, and after putting on about 60 pounds and enduring a weekly migraine, I decided to get out of the newspaper business. I headed next for a PR job in Philadelphia, because after covering county politics and dealing with irate readers, living in the city no longer seemed so scary. While the PR job didn’t last, my love for Philly did, and for the past 10 years, I’ve been doing transcription work to make money and pursuing freelance and personal projects on the side. Coincidentally, spending time with college friends who had moved to Philly introduced me to my second husband, Mike Ryan, and led to our marriage and our 7-month-old son.

I’ll be the first to admit that my career path so far has been much less lucrative than, say, a career in public radio, but I believe that following my bliss has led me to becoming the person, and the writer, I am today.

VENTRELLA: Your latest work is “The Art of Life”, a collection of essays on various topics. Where did these first appear and how did you decide which essays to include?

WILSON: The pieces in “The Art of Life” came from three different sources: my “Standard-Journal” newspaper columns; columns I wrote for the now-defunct Comcast site; and blog entries written between the years 2002 and 2010.

To figure out what to include, I reread all of my blog entries and columns and pulled out the ones I liked the most. Then I reread them once again, keeping in mind the following criteria: Did it stand on its own, outside of the collection? Did it fit with the other pieces? Was it likely to appeal to a broader audience than that for which it was originally intended? If I addressed a similar topic in two pieces, I opted for the one that was stronger. Then I arranged the pieces so that they led into each other, being conscious to alternate topics and tone. Finally, I went back through the manuscript and cut any pieces I felt were not as strong until I got to a reasonable page length.

VENTRELLA: You also are editor of a quarterly online literary magazine. How did that get started?

WILSON: At the time, I was about five years out of grad school, and I felt a calling to make a place for poetry in the world. This was an idea suggested to me by my poetry professors: that it was the responsibility of a poet in these days to make a place for poetry. A friend of mine, Amanda Cornwell, had received her bachelor’s degree in art and shared similar goals. We both felt it was important to make a place for the arts, particularly when you look at how the arts have been increasingly devalued in our society.

Previously, Amanda had launched a small print literary magazine, but funding was difficult and the circulation was small. We looked at the Web as a good forum for accomplishing our goals of making the arts accessible and appealing to the general public. With Amanda doing our initial Web design and serving as the Art Editor, we launched “Wild Violet” in October 2001. After the first three volumes (12 issues), she left to pursue other projects.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written a book giving advice to those who wish to appear in literary magazines. What’s the biggest piece of advice you can give (other than “read my book”) based on the mistakes you most often see new writers make?

WILSON: Know your market. As the editor of a literary magazine, far too often I receive submissions from people who apparently either cannot be bothered to check out our free online publication or have no clue how to direct their submission toward a specific market. We receive many submissions that are clearly inappropriate, which should be obvious to anyone who had perused the latest issue. It is essential to read the magazines to which you are considering submitting, and to decide which are most appropriate to send your work. It’s not enough just to look for magazines that publish poetry, for example; you need to find a magazine that publishes the kind of poetry you write.

VENTRELLA: “Literary” seems to have a specific meaning to some people in the publishing world. For instance, a science fiction or fantasy writer wouldn’t send their story to a literary magazine, would they?

WILSON: Actually, we receive all kinds of submissions, and we do publish some science fiction and fantasy. The term “literary” has unfortunately acquired an elitist connotation which, through “Wild Violet,” I’m trying to change. To me, “literary” means work which may be more challenging to the reader: writing which goes beyond basic storytelling, whether in terms of character development or the exploration of concepts. The science fiction we publish meets that criteria.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that talent is something that can be learned? In other words, can someone go to school to become a great writer or poet?

WILSON: Talent, that essential flare of ability, cannot be taught. Yet, more of us possess that essential flare than we may realize. A teacher can help you discover what your talents are. You might find, for example, upon taking a painting course, that it’s simply not something that comes naturally to you, but that photography does. That’s the role of education: helping people to discover and refine the talents they do have.

That said, I think education is a surer way to success for many people. There are few individuals with the right mix of raw talent and focused execution to become an overnight success, so to speak. It can happen, but those success stories are rare. Even those who enter a writing career later in life, after pursuing other careers, have more likely than not been honing their communications skills in other ways.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future for printed books? For book stores?

WILSON: According to Bloomberg, in the second quarter, for the first time ever, sold more electronic books than hardcovers. I think it’s safe to say that print books are going to take on a new role in our society. Just as with other media that have gone digital, such as music and photography, I think we’re destined for a sea change.

In some capacity, printed books will continue to sell, if for one key reason: there are always slow adopters to new technology. Plus, until somebody figures out a way to sign a digital copy, it will remain the only way to get a signed book. A lot of people like to have an object they can hold which is not subject to, say, a hard-drive crash or computer virus. So there will always be a place for books as more than just a quirky artifact. The number of print copies sold, however, will likely diminish. When you think about it, people are still buying vinyl, too, but nowadays it’s confined to discreet subcultures: namely, DJs and collectors.

Book stores will have to look at how to offer the reader an experience they can’t get from buying a digital copy. I think book stores may become more of a locus to interact: in person with authors for lectures and readings, and perhaps with other readers through reading groups and the like. I would expect at least the chain book stores to add digital kiosks to the store, where readers could sample electronic books and buy them.

If book stores don’t start planning now, they will likely find themselves running into financial trouble, much the same way that record/CD stores have in the last few years with the emergence of the MP3.

VENTRELLA: “The Art of Life” is a self-published work. What are the pros and cons of self-publishing and why did you decide to do so for this book? Would you do it for, say, a novel?

WILSON: Any means of publishing offers pros and cons, which I examined carefully when deciding how to publish “The Art of Life.”

Pros to self-publishing include more control over the finished work. The author determines the final content, layout and book cover. Aligned with that are some obvious cons: you must either do all that work yourself or find someone to do it for you. So it is much more time-consuming, especially to guarantee a high-quality final product.

Another pro of self-publishing is timeliness. You can put the book out as soon as it’s ready, without going through the delays that a publishing house would necessitate. I wanted to get “The Art of Life” out as soon as possible, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce myself to the reading public. Waiting for years for a possible acceptance by a publishing company did not appeal to me. I also felt that this particular collection, because of its range of styles and content matter, would be difficult to fit into the sort of genre or subcategory that publishers prefer.

Still another con, there is still a lot of prejudice towards self-published books, in part because so many sub-standard books have been published this way: poorly edited vanity projects that make the rest of the field look bad. However, as editor of “Wild Violet,” as part of our mission of making a place for the arts, I have reviewed dozens of self-published books. I’m happy to report there is some gold amongst the flax, so I felt like I was in good company.

Yet another con: as a self-published author, you are responsible for any expenses involved in printing and promoting the book. On the pro side, when money comes in, you see it immediately and stand to earn more per copy than through a typical publisher. Along the same lines, you don’t have access to a publisher’s connections when it comes to promotion; however, as I’ve learned from watching other authors, even with a traditional publisher, much of the promotion falls on the shoulders of the author. So if you’re willing to put that time and effort in, you could stand to profit.

Since there’s a long history of self-published poetry chapbooks, I felt comfortable with going that route for my poetry book, “Picturebook of the Martyrs.” Likewise, self-published nonfiction books can still sell, so I felt good about going that route with “The Art of Life,” as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to self-published fiction, there’s a glut in the market, with too many poor-quality books cluttering the field. Therefore, for better or for worse, I think that readers tend to look at self-published fiction a bit askew. The exception here is erotica, especially electronic versions, because that seems to sell strongly no matter the publishing source.

A caveat: these observations are largely anecdotal, so I’d be happy to be corrected by someone with more direct knowledge. However, I myself would be leery of self-publishing a fiction book, unless it were an erotica title.

VENTRELLA: One of the things that I admire about you is that you also run a Monty Python Appreciation Society. How did that come about?

WILSON: Just for clarification, I’m not currently running such a society. However, I am the former president of the Penn State Monty Python Society, and my adventures with MPS are detailed in my online chronicle, “Dedicated Idiocy.” MPS began in the 1970s when “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” first hit the American airwaves. By the ’80s, interest in the group had waned, but just before I joined as a freshman in 1988, MTV had added the show to its late-night schedule, so there were a record number of new members.

I discovered the Monty Python Society through a flyer I saw while attending an Amnesty International meeting. Since the two groups met at the same time, I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit that I sided with comedy over human rights. Still, I think comedy can do a lot of good in the world. One good thing it has done for me is introduce me to some of my oldest, best friends in the world. I’ve often said the real test of friendship is whether you can get together and be silly together. With these folks, I definitely can.

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