met this month’s guest on Twitter maybe a year ago. I remember reading one of Jo’s creative nonfiction essays in The Coachella Review, where I’d also been published, and admiring her prose. This past summer I was pleased when she reached out to me and inquired about a contributing editor position with Barren Magazine, where I volunteer with the CNF team.
I’m happy to say Jo has since joined us on the CNF squad at Barren. And ... she’s the lead CNF editor with X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine. Please give a warm welcome to Jo Varnish!
Before diving into our Q&A, let’s take a look at the journal’s mission statement:
X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine’s vision is to publish uncomfortable, entertaining, and unforgettable prose that shines brighter than the skeleton in your body, prose that sees through the skin and reveals something deeper. We work hard to give our readers the best authors on the planet.
X-R-A-Y has—hands down, in my opinion—the coolest images on the literary journal scene. Artist Bob Schofield customizes each one, pulling out the essence of every piece. The journal accepts prose, 1,500 or fewer words, through Submittable. Sorry, poets; no poetry at this time. Let’s get a peek behind the editorial process, this time specific to CNF!
WOW: Hi, Jo! Nice to chat with you again, outside of Barren Magazine! Let’s turn our focus to X-R-A-Y. Specifically, CNF, where you serve as lead editor. How long have you been in this role? How did you find this opportunity? What do you most love about it?
Jo: Hi, Ann! My involvement began last year when I had a piece of fiction published with them. A few months later, I reached out to the Editor-in-Chief, Jenn, to ask if she might need help, as I loved the journal. My timing was good; they did! I came on board as an assistant editor, and would get super excited when I saw CNF pieces come in. A few weeks later, I asked Jenn if she might consider giving me the role of CNF editor. Jenn is an amazing EIC and has a vision for X-R-A-Y that has led to this ultra-cool, edgy magazine that reliably publishes excellent work. She was happy for me take on the position. The thing I most love is sending out acceptance emails, knowing exactly how much it means to writers.
WOW: CNF, while not as broad as fiction in many ways, still has a fair number of forms and techniques. For the purposes of our interview, we’re including the personal essay, memoir excerpts, flash nonfiction, and lyric (braided, hermit crab, and/or collage essays, and prose poems). From this list, do you have a favorite you like to read? What about a favorite you like to write? Why?
Jo: I’m a fan of CNF in all forms. I love to be surprised. If I had to pick a favorite, I’d say braided essay. CNF is all about connections, how it enhances our understanding of the world and our place in it. The piece you mention that I have in The Coachella Review, Candling, braided my mammogram with the story of my friend in Switzerland who found an egg. The aha moment came when I saw the mammogram image on a light screen in the doctor’s office and it brought to mind a photograph my friend took of the egg with a light shining on it. When a connection like that comes, it’s revelatory and also calming.
WOW: I see X-R-A-Y seeks shorter submissions; 1,500 or fewer words. While that’s often not a problem with all the flash fiction I see on Twitter, CNF essays can be beefy at times. It’s not uncommon to come across pieces in the 3,000-word or higher range. Why did X-R-A-Y decide 1,500 and under is the sweet spot?
Jo: I like that you can be transported/shocked/delighted, and made to feel something in a short span of time. By keeping the word count low, readers know they can invest in a piece fully and it won’t take more than a few minutes. There’s so much that can be achieved in under 1,500 words, as our contributors show us.
WOW: Flash nonfiction is one of my faves. It’s hard, but so rewarding when I land it. Any advice to give our readers on what you think makes a flash piece sing?
Jo: I think for very few words, it needs to stand out. I encourage writers to seek out a few beta readers because a fresh set of eyes is invaluable. I want an opening that draws me right in. I don’t want a ton of set up. I would have said previously that I prefer dialogue, but one of our team members, the wickedly talented Noa Cova, has shown in her flash that dialogue isn’t necessary for a piece to be complete.
WOW: What do you look for in submissions? Do you find yourself drawn more to content ... or craft?
Jo: This is a great question. Many writers understandably write about the big things in life: loss, catastrophe, drug use, abuse. And, we’ve published some great pieces on those topics. I think it’s important to note, though, that because there are so many pieces that explore these big issues, it’s harder to get an acceptance simply because one is up against many others dealing with similar topics.
For me it’s often the quieter content that sets a piece apart. One of my favorite CNFs in X-R-A-Y is about time a writer spent in a house that was being built by a construction team where her Irish boyfriend worked. She framed it as a letter to the new house owners. I loved it instantly. You can read MK Sturdevant’s skillful essay here.
“I’m particular about how dialogue is presented. Flashbacks and dreams have to be skillfully written to hold my interest.”
WOW: MK Sturdevant’s essay is wonderful! I love the cheeky humor, her descriptions, the way she nails (pun intended!) his spot-on Irish expressions and lilt. A wonderful example, Jo—thank you for sharing! OK, on the flip side, what’s a dealbreaker for you?
Jo: Aside from the obvious things we wouldn’t publish—misogynistic, racist, or homophobic writing—I can’t think of any dealbreakers. I’m particular about how dialogue is presented, and of course the old mantra of “showing not telling.” Flashbacks and dreams have to be skillfully written to hold my interest.
WOW: Have you ever regretted passing on a piece? Ever missed out on a sub you loved because another journal accepted it ahead of you? Do you think about “the ones that got away?”
Jo: There haven’t been pieces I wish I’d taken for X-R-A-Y but lost, because I’m happy to accept an essay and work with the writer if something isn’t quite there but I see its potential. That said, there have been PLENTY of brilliant pieces I’ve had to pass on simply because they weren’t a fit. As we’ve all heard, a rejection often isn’t a reflection on writing quality. It has to be unlike anything we’ve recently published.
WOW: What advice would you give writers if they had, say, a 2,000 or 3,000-word CNF essay that they wanted to tighten and sub to you? What might you suggest to them to make every word count?
Jo: I think it’s important to ensure, first off, that the essay can survive such a hefty edit. If an essay feels finished at 2,000 or 3,000 words, then perhaps it isn’t the right piece to send to X-R-A-Y. With my own writing, I always look for places where I can cut dialogue. Leaving a piece and then returning to it usually leads me to chop more. I often find with my work that the opening paragraph or two can be cut.
WOW: Do you like to see research woven into a CNF piece?
Jo: I love CNF that teaches me something, but there’s a fine line for me. I don’t want to feel like I’m reading a university paper. We recently published Robert Julius’s Grief is an Empty Shell. Robert obviously knows a lot about “real” hermit crabs, and includes information about them ... yet, it’s relevant, engaging, and adds to the arc.
WOW: Oh my gosh, Jo, another exquisite CNF example! Robert’s essay is haunting. This, especially, I love: “The shells weren’t just shells. They were sentimental, physical objects of memory.” This segues nicely into my next question: What do you most enjoy about CNF? What does it bring readers that fiction, perhaps, may not? Conversely, what do you think fiction brings readers that CNF does not?
Jo: For me, there’s something about knowing that words are true that leaves me with a visceral feeling after reading CNF. The honesty, and often the bravery, that X-R-A-Y’s CNF contributors bring to the table is breathtaking. Fiction, of course, affords a freedom in terms of content and point of view. When I was editing fiction for X-R-A-Y before shifting to CNF, I remember reading Scarab by Jihoon Park and messaging our EIC, Jenn: “We have to accept this now!”
WOW: By the way, what’s X-R-A-Y’s acceptance rate (approximate is fine)?
Jo: We try to respond within three to five weeks.
WOW: I submitted to X-R-A-Y this past winter. At the time, the journal accepted submissions through email. When did you shift to Submittable?
Jo: X-R-A-Y has been blessed with the wonderful and super capable Crow Norlander as our Managing Editor. He organized our transition to Submittable. There’s no fee to submit, although there’s an optional tip jar to help cover the cost of Submittable that is absolutely voluntary. We don’t want there to be a cost barrier to any writer.
WOW: I saw on the website that X-R-A-Y is compiling “collections” now. That’s intriguing! Can you shed some light around that? How often do the collections come out? How many pieces are chosen, and what’s the criteria for inclusion?
Jo: Yes, those are Jenn’s compilations. She chooses her favorites from the previous quarter and Bob illustrates the cover. Each issue includes between 12 to 15 pieces, with usually one or two CNF in the mix. It’s a great way to further showcase the writing that stood out to us.
“There’s something about knowing that words are true that leaves me with a visceral feeling after reading CNF. The honesty, and often the bravery ...”
WOW: At WOW, we love to promote other writers, and you’ve done a great job already of amplifying some of these works. Care to share any others from X-R-A-Y that you can’t stop thinking about?
Jo: I’d actually love to mention them all! Here are a few more I knew we had to accept:
All the Things We’ll Never Have, from Christopher DeWan. This piece floored me. I haven’t made it through a re-reading without shedding a tear. Stunning work.
Listing, by Michael Todd Cohen. In the form of a real estate listing, we learn about the narrator’s struggle with keeping his homosexuality a secret, and the loss of his father. Michael elicits our empathy without melodrama, and the result is a superb example of a hermit crab essay that will stay with you.
Ham Sandwich, Dry. Caroljean Gavin is wildly talented, and it was such an honor that she wanted to publish her essay in X-R-A-Y. I can’t do it justice by trying to outline it, because the point of it is to let it unroll as you read it ... which I suggest you do right now.
WOW: Jo, these essays! I especially love the one from Christopher DeWan. Christopher’s essay is exactly why CNF gives me chills and will always be my genre of choice. OK, turning the tables, from the journal to you personally. Describe a day in the life at Jo’s writing desk. Put us in scene. What’s your routine, and what are you currently working on?
Jo: Firstly, there is no desk! Secondly, I wish I had a wonderfully structured timetable, so I could impress you! I’m a big believer in writing after I’ve done some thinking. When I sit and type—typically late at night when my kids and dogs are asleep—it’s fairly well-formed. I used to write plans for pieces that never materialized. A writer friend described this as letting an idea lose its energy. Now I don’t write or type anything until I’m ready to get sucked into a draft. I write on my sofa, knees tucked under me, Diet Coke and peanut M&Ms at my side, my pit bull asleep next to me, and Lifetime movies on the TV. I need background noise and I won’t find myself distracted by a Lifetime movie! I’m fiercely unstructured, but I will never miss a deadline.
WOW: Tell us about your first publication. The thrill of it.
Jo: I think if was Chasing Shadows. I’ve since revised it, and Blue Lake Review published the newer version. I remember getting the Submittable notification that it was accepted and feeling like I’d won a Pulitzer.
WOW: God, Jo, you leveled me with this fiction. I’m wrung out. OK ... taking a breath to mop my eyes ... besides your editorial duties with X-R-A-Y, what are some other creative projects you’re pursuing? What does downtime look like for you?
Jo: I’m finishing my MFA and getting ready to submit my final project, a collection of short fiction with a theme of loss and reaction. When that’s completed, I have an idea for a long-form memoir that I hope to begin in January. I recently started as a PEN prison writing mentor, which is important to me. And, I edit flash fiction and CNF as a freelancer. Downtime usually involves my dogs. I walk my pit bull and as we stroll, I listen to audio books or plan pieces to write. I love to travel, but obviously that passion is on hold until the pandemic passes.
WOW: Last question, but warning: It’s a doozy. Seeing that you write fiction, CNF, and poetry, which do you find the most challenging? Why? Which do you love best? (I know: Unfair question!)
Jo: I’m really not a poet. There are a couple of pieces I’ve enjoyed writing, but I don’t know enough about the form to be considered a poet! I love to read and write CNF and fiction equally. For me, fiction is the most exposing. CNF is a case of finding meaning, rather than inventing it. With fiction, I have to create people, a place for them and their experiences, create a story. It’s all my invention. I find it more vulnerable because readers might think, wow, she thought this would be a story worth reading?
My thanks to Jo Varnish, CNF Editor with X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, for chatting with me. I can’t close this column without a special shout-out to WOW’s founder, Angela, whose essay appeared in spring 2020 on X-R-A-Y’s site! Take a few minutes to read Doing It In Public. Ang and I have been critique partners for three years now. She was one of my early readers for my flash nonfiction, The Pull, which ironically appeared in X-R-A-Y just a week or two before Ang’s essay.
OK, scribes, it’s your turn now. Sharpen your pencils and send Jo your best!
Ann Kathryn Kelly writes from New Hampshire’s Seacoast region. She’s an editor with Barren Magazine, a columnist with WOW! Women on Writing, and she works in the technology sector. Ann leads writing workshops for a nonprofit that offers therapeutic arts programming to people living with brain injury. Her essays have appeared in a number of literary journals.