Lisa McInerney was first published here in The Stinging Fly in 2015 when her debut novel The Glorious Heresies was excerpted for Issue 30, Vol. 2. Eight years on, she’s now the magazine’s incoming editor, making her the sixth occupant of the role (after Aoife Kavanagh, Declan Meade, Thomas Morris, Sally Rooney, and Danny Denton). With the magazine celebrating its 25th anniversary, and on the eve of the publication of Lisa’s first full issue since her appointment last year, author and academic Tim Groenland has interviewed her about the magazine’s evolution, how the editing process really works, and how The Stinging Fly seeks to respond to an ever-changing publishing landscape.
This interview forms part of a developing project in which Tim Groenland studies contemporary publishing infrastructures, with emphasis on how small presses and magazines operate: how they’re structured, how they’re connected with other cultural institutions, funding bodies and universities, and how they’re connected to international publishing cultures.
Tim Groenland: You started editing the magazine almost a year ago, so I thought I’d start by asking you to reflect on that experience so far. What has it been like putting together these first two issues?
Lisa McInerney: I came in to start guest editing the All New Writers issue over a year ago—so I’ve been officially in the role since August, but doing the work before that as well. Because of the 25-year anniversary it’s a really interesting time to be joining the Stinging Fly group, or family, or whatever you want to call it. We’ve gone through two different submission rounds this past year. First, for the All New Writers issue: this was a restricted submission round in that we wanted to only publish writers we hadn’t published before, and writers who were from Ireland or who called Ireland their home. Before that we had an issue dedicated to poetry. Our last submission period, for the new summer issue, was the first properly open submission round in a year.
We’re also taking this opportunity to really look at everything that’s going on; we’re drawing up an EDI policy at the moment, conducting focus groups and refreshing the mentoring programme. From the outside, these activities probably feel like they were meant to supplement the All New Writers issue, but they’re actually vital to the organisation as a whole. So I’ve been putting together two issues while at the same time being heavily involved in the planning to move us into the next stages.
Tim Groenland: The first issue of The Stinging Fly was published back in March 1998, with the magazine at that point being a small and quite marginal entity—more or less a one-man operation for several years. And that’s developed into something that you just described as a ‘group’ or ‘family’: The Stinging Fly now seems almost like an ecosystem of different activities feeding into each other, an organisation big enough and reflective enough to have significant funding and a need to think about longer-term strategies and policies. I wondered if you could talk about what that’s looked like from your perspective, from a young writer being aware of the magazine, to then being published by it, to being brought into the family.
Lisa McInerney: Obviously I wouldn’t have been aware of The Stinging Fly at the very beginning. When the first issue was published, I was still in school. I wouldn’t have been in any way aware of what was happening in the Irish writing landscape. I think when you’re at school your concept of contemporary writing is probably either YA or, well, it’s not contemporary, it’s the stuff you’ve read at school—classic texts and so on. You’re very detached from the wider scene, which I think is probably one of the gaps that literary magazines are there to bridge.
So when I first became aware of The Stinging Fly, it would’ve been a good ten years on from the publication of that first issue. I would’ve known it as an Irish literary magazine that published short stories, and it would’ve felt to me at the time as something that was quite worthy and quite, you know, ‘literary,’ and something that I may not necessarily have had any right to feel I had access to, because I was coming from a working-class background. I didn’t finish university, and so all of my writing was done outside of that academic system. Nowadays it’s more likely you’ll do a creative writing degree, then go on and do a master’s or even a PhD; you know, it feels a little bit more formalised. When I became aware of The Stinging Fly—even at that stage—it was as an institution. And I would’ve felt very much on the outside of that.
Which is ridiculous, really, because one of the things that Declan, and then later Thomas Morris, made sure of—one of the things that really marked them apart from a lot of other purported institutions, at least in my head—was how welcoming they were. How interested they were in who was writing what in Ireland and how actively they sought out who was writing, and how they tried to find out what writers wanted to write about, what supports they needed, and so on. The whole point of The Stinging Fly, the reason it was set up in the first place, was that Declan and his co-founder Aoife Kavanagh realised that there were people writing in Ireland with few places to send their stories. They saw what writers needed and they decided, well, let’s be proactive and try and fill that gap.
And we know the good that that did. We know that that created something much broader and something much more positive than simply having a place to send your stories. It created, I think, in Irish writers a sense of confidence and a sense of impetus: you were writing knowing that your work could go somewhere and knowing that there was someone there to read it. I think that makes such a difference in terms of building writers’ confidence. Just knowing that you’re not just shouting into a void, I think that’s hugely important. So by the time that I became aware of The Stinging Fly it had already met that goal: it was the place that you sent your story.
I became aware of it around the time that Kevin Barry started publishing and made everybody very excited again. I’m sure somebody who can look at Irish writing from a broader and more learned perspective than me would be able to tell you exactly whether or not there was a resurgence in interest in the Irish short story around that time, but it felt like that to me. My novel was bought before I ever published a short story in The Stinging Fly, and because I had a novel coming out, Thomas Morris made a point of introducing himself to me and of reading what I was working on. He published an extract from the novel in the magazine in 2015: that’s how I came to work with the guys at The Stinging Fly, and even then it felt that they were more than just a magazine. So it felt as if Irish writing was a very vibrant space, and it was very vibrant because there was stuff going on, and there was stuff going on because The Stinging Fly was doing it.
I was invited to take part in readings, or the Fly team might have said, We’re doing a panel and we think that your work matches what we’re trying to do here, so would you be interested? I was asked to be a contributing editor from 2017 and was involved more closely from then on. At first that was just a case of being asked, every submission period, will you read 50 stories? I got more and more involved as the months went on.
Tim Groenland: What you’ve just said makes it obvious how important it was that they reached out personally to you as a writer. With that in mind, it seems as if in recent years the magazine has become much more active and systematic in aiming to be inclusive. Could you say a bit more about that process and those kinds of initiatives? The Play it Forward Fellowships, for example, a joint initiative with Skein Press, appears to be aimed at reaching out to people who are writing but don’t think of themselves as publishable writers, and to help them towards the point where they might submit something.
Lisa McInerney: I think we’ve become more and more aware of that. The fact that there are people out there who want to write, who have perspectives and stories and voices that are very valuable in terms of the broader picture, in terms of Irish writing, but who might not have an appropriate level of access that allows them to fully realise their ambition. As we put together the magazine, we try to assess everything that’s coming through: try to learn and to ask, what stories are we getting and what stories are we not getting? One of the goals of our EDI policy is to make sure that the work that we’re reading and the work that we’re eventually going to publish is reflective of Ireland in the broadest possible sense, reflective of the people who are writing in Ireland. So there’s a lot of active learning on the job from those open submission policies.
I think you have to be proactive to go out and empower people and to search for that writing. One of the reasons is very practical: we are funded by the Arts Council. And the Arts Council of course is also asking these questions of itself and its role in the promotion and the development of Irish culture, and whether or not everybody is being reached and whether or not we are showing a vision of Irish cultural life that matches reality. So, part of it is the fact that we work very closely with the likes of The Arts Council, and with other Arts Council-funded groups.
I talked earlier about how the magazine started with Declan seeing something that needed to be done, or seeing a need that Irish writers had, and setting out to proactively fill that need, as it were. It’s the same with this. We’ve become more aware of the challenges that emerging writers might come up against. And we have to ask ourselves, well, if we want to eventually publish these voices, what supports do these writers need? That’s the reason we worked so closely with Skein Press on the Play It Forward Fellowships, and that’s the reason that we have an in-house mentorship programme. At the moment—and it might be developed further—we would match a writer that we are aware of, or that we are working with on some level, with a more established writer to have that mentoring relationship.
And then of course we have the Stinging Fly Summer School, which has been running now for a few years. Then when you have the summer school and the workshops, there’s the question of—well, how do you make those more accessible for people? So we have subsidised places and free spots to make attending these developmental programmes accessible to people. Because often it isn’t. If you’re a writer from outside of that whole loop, or if you’ve got financial challenges, even an entry-level initiative like a creative writing workshop may not feel accessible to you, you know? So we would try to make sure that we’re reaching people in that sense as well, to be aware of what still needs to be done and to have an actionable plan in place.
We find that publishing work on our website, particularly literary criticism and series about writing or development of craft, as in our ‘Notes on Rejection’ collection of short essays, also helps us get across what we’re all about and hopefully underlines that The Stinging Fly is for all writers regardless of where they’re coming from. The podcast, where we read and discuss Fly short stories, is another resource we hope readers and writers can enjoy and find personal value in.
There’s another thing we’ve done for the last two open rounds of submissions, actually, which we’ve been really pleased with the response to. We’ve run information sessions on Zoom geared towards people who have never submitted to The Stinging Fly before, or who might not have used Submittable (the submission platform that a lot of literary magazines use). We started doing this for the All New Writers issue, realising that there might be writers keen to submit work but who are completely new to this whole thing. It’s just a Zoom session where we get to introduce ourselves, talk a bit about what we are about, and then give people the opportunity to ask questions.
The last one that we had, for this summer issue, over 500 people from all over the world joined in! I don’t think it had occurred to me that it could have such a big impact for people. One of the writers who was published in our All New Writers issue told us that she would not have considered sending her work in if she hadn’t come along to that meeting and had the process demystified. She then felt empowered to send her work through and the work was brilliant. So just the fact that people can see the faces behind the magazine and understand what we’re about and realise that there’s no question silly enough. There might be some niggling thing that might be stopping you sending your work forward—just to have that question answered. It’s pretty much low to no cost, but in terms of accessibility, it really makes a difference to people.
Tim Groenland: Speaking of demystifying things, let’s talk about the process. Could you give a description of what happens from start to finish with the issues you‘ve worked on so far?
Lisa McInerney: Largely, when we say we have an open submission policy, we adhere to that as much as possible. We do commission work if we feel there’s a topic we’d like to respond to, or if there is an opportunity to showcase writers we’ve been working with. For example, with our All New Writers issue, we invited the Play It Forward fellows to write about the emotional core in their work. But the open submission policy is very much at the heart of what we do—we want to respond to what writers are writing, to facilitate expression more than to lead it.
The submissions windows are open for about two weeks, people send in their work through the Submittable platform, and we start reading. We have a team of readers that we trust, and each will take on as many stories, essays, poems or novel extracts, whatever it is that they’re particularly interested in, as they can manage.
For our Summer 2023 issue, we had 1600 short stories submitted, about 200 novel extracts, about 200 essays, and about a thousand poems. These were divided up amongst a small team of readers who, of course, are not doing this as their full-time job. I think I ended up reading just under a thousand stories myself, most of the essays and a lot of the novel extracts as well. And Cal Doyle, our poetry editor, read all the poems.
As we read, we would try to log a lot of the information that comes in in terms of like, where is this coming from? What kind of story is it, what’s its main theme? We like to gather a little bit of detail to see, well, what is the typical Stinging Fly story?
Everything gets read all the way through. You know fairly quickly, I think, which are the really good pieces—the ones that make you think, oh wow, yeah, this could be something. You start making your longlists very early on in the process. I’ll get to a point where I’m able to start sharing work with the other contributing editors and they’ll be able to start sharing the work that they’re reading with me and we’ll be able to discuss quality. At this point it really is like, is the story good?
And when you’ve assessed all of that and when you know what your longlist looks like, then you have to start thinking in terms of the issue: what’s definitely in, what speaks to that, what poem would go with this. And it starts taking shape beyond that first sense of, is it good? Because if you’ve got 240 pages, and you have 1600 stories, you know that it’s not just going to be a case of 10 stories being good and the rest of them being bad. You’re always going to get stories that aren’t ready, but you’re always going to get a significant proportion of stories that are perfectly publishable. I suppose one of the things you have to do straight off is to make peace with the fact that not every story that you think is spectacular is going to get in.
Eventually you’re going to run out of pages, and that was certainly the case with the summer issue. It was often a case of a story that might have been too similar to another one, or that was incongruous in some way to the broader shape of the issue. It starts getting very unfair, almost. But all the writers who were shortlisted, particularly emerging writers who might be on their first story or have never been published before, but you can really see the quality in what they’re doing, those writers would always get personal rejections. They wouldn’t just be told: no thanks. We would try to say to them, this is a really good story; you made it to the last 60 or so stories, and unfortunately it didn’t get through but we would love to read more from you. It can mean a lot to people to not just get a form rejection, to get a letter back saying, this isn’t ready, but I really hope you’ll send us work again, and I’m really looking forward to reading it when you do.
Eventually you do start whittling down and you do start to see the shape of the issue. And then it’s a case of, as I said, things that are going together, things that speak to one another. You want to get a broad mix of voices. You want the stories not to be too similar. You want the poems to be varied, you want the essays to be interesting, and all of that.
That’s the selection part—should I talk about the editing?
Tim Groenland: Please.
Lisa McInerney: Once you accept the stories, then you would have a little chat with the writers. You would want to see what the writer felt needed to be done, or if they had any concerns, or if the writer hasn’t been published much before then you might want to go through the process with them beforehand, before you go sending them a ream of notes.
Often my first pass on the story would focus on any broader changes that might be made. Maybe something structural, or maybe there’s something not ringing true with a character. You know, those bigger notes. Speaking as a writer myself, I find I’m very receptive to that feedback. The way I look at it is that the editor becomes an advocate for the story. You separate the story from the writer. You almost get between them and you start arguing on the part of the story against its creator, which sounds a bit mad when you think about it. And I think, as a writer, that I benefit from that. I enjoy the fact that somebody else has come in, keen to take the part of this story I’ve created, and has decided to ask me questions that may not have occurred to me or point out flaws that I was hoping nobody would see. So that’s the first round, and I find that writers tend to really enjoy that part.
Then you get to the line edits [laughs]. I‘m a very pedantic person—I love line edits. It’s my favourite, it’s my zen place to go, to go back to a story and just pick it apart sentence by sentence and really find the beating heart in each sentence and ask, well, what is this doing? What is it trying to do? And what does it actually do? And where is it sagging? Where is it clashing with something else? And then smaller things again—where is there tautology? Where is there repetition?
Of course you’ll get stories where the line edit produces maybe three notes for the entire thing because the writer is very precise, and they know exactly what they are doing with their words. And it’s important to recognise as an editor that not every writer is prepared, essentially, to get back a heavily marked-up document. So you might try to prepare people a bit and say, ‘this is going to look really pernickety, but bear with me…’ You can do two or three rounds of line editing, because particularly in a short story, each sentence has to pull its weight and has to be moving towards some sort of bigger logic or conclusion.
So myself and the writer will have our back and forth. Then we’ll come to a version of the story that we’re happy with and then the really specific stuff happens: it goes forward to be typeset and then to be proofread. Then we’ll come back with the very final changes that the proofreader may have picked up on. Some stories, of course, are set out in a very particular way by the writer—the writer knows what the story should look like on the page, and then they may have some feedback on the typesetting and… yeah, then we’re done. Then they get paid, which is probably a very welcome part of the process for any writer.
Tim Groenland: You mentioned your experience as a novelist, and I was wondering whether that is consciously present in your mind: are there particular examples that you draw on from your own experiences with editors?
Lisa McInerney: It’s funny, there is a divide in my head between me as a writer and me as an editor, and I don’t often draw on specific past experiences of being edited. But I do use the broader feeling of—I think there’s something very disappointing about getting back a piece of work from your editor with barely any reaction to it. I refuse to believe I’m that good a writer, you know! I’m not some spectacular genius. So when you get back a piece of writing with very little response from an editor in terms of either picking up mistakes or even having a broader sense of how it’s working, it gets at your confidence a little bit. You’re going, well, I don’t know if it’s reading well, and I don’t know if the story made sense to you now, and I’d like to have a more solid sense of how the story feels to you as a reader and as an editor.
Obviously all editors have different ways of working, and that’s fine. But I think that from that experience, possibly subconsciously, when I’m sending edits to a writer I want them to know that I get what they’re doing and that I’m interested in the story and that I feel that I can help them—hopefully—make the story even more effective than it already is. That level of engagement is very important to me.
I’m saying these things as if they’re generally true, and of course they’re not, because you will also get very established writers who know exactly what they’re doing, and they would much rather a lighter touch. For writers like that, you’re coming in and you’re basically pointing out, ‘I think you’ve made a mistake in this sentence,’ or something very specific. There’s no point in arguing with them about what the story means, because they already know. So there’s a different way of working depending on what the writer needs.
Tim Groenland: You said that you wanted to track what the typical Stinging Fly story looks like. Turning that question back to you: are there types of stories that regularly come in, and has that changed in recent years?
Lisa McInerney: Well, when I say we’re tracking this data it’s more like a broader idea of how many stories come in that are about, say, death, and how many of those are in the first person. We haven’t really gotten to the point where we’re able to make any sweeping generalisations about what the typical story is. That’s still something that we are trying to work out.
But one of the things I will say is that it’s quite obvious when a writer has written and sent in a story because they think it’s a Stinging Fly story or they think it’s something that we want to read. The feeling that we would have about the purpose of this story is that it’s primarily supposed to get our attention. And that’s never a good way to go about things. People ask Cal Doyle, our poetry editor, ‘What poem should I send in to you for The Stinging Fly? What do you like to read?’ And he says, well, I don’t like to read anything that you think I’m supposed to like to read! What I want to read is something that excites you, something that you are excited to have written, something that you feel passionate about. Something that only you could have written.
That’s the story that we want to read or the poem that we want to read or whatever it might be. And that holds true, I think, across the board, because you do get people who are trying to write, you know, the Kevin Barry story. You’re like, well, no, Kevin Barry already exists, and he already writes his stories. What’s your story? What’s your perspective on this? What is the thing that only you could have said?
I think what’s more obvious, when you start reading, is the number of similarities you see between unsuccessful stories. In general, I find a lot of stories coming in that are very hazy: I’m two pages in and I still don’t really know who is talking or where the story is set. I find those stories, more often than not, turn out to be not quite good. And I say more often than not, because you’ll always get the story that breaks every bloody rule in the book and is spectacular. You know? I don’t want people reading an interview like this and thinking, this is what I shouldn’t do, because that doesn’t work either.
One of the types of story that I often react quite badly to is the story that I call a character study—where you have a quite intricate rundown of a person that this writer has created; and they’ve got interiority, they’ve got interesting interpersonal connections—they’ve got all these things, they’re in a particular setting, and then they don’t do anything. The writer never takes this person they’ve made and challenges them in some way. And I’m not saying that you have to immediately have a fascinating plot, that’s not the case at all. But you often think: well, you’ve just created this very complex person, do you not want to see where their limits are? Do you not want in some way to put them into a situation where they’re not entirely comfortable? What happens now? And often I find it’s those stories that I get very frustrated with. But again, you can have absolutely spectacular stories that are just about a person where nothing really happens.
Tim Groenland: What you’re describing sounds more like the start of a novel, or possibly a creative writing exercise. You alluded earlier to the more formalised creative writing scene that’s developed since the magazine was founded, and it seems logical that more writers submitting to you would be on creative writing courses. Are you often aware of that as you’re reading? Is it something you can detect?
Lisa McInerney: Oh yeah, usually it is fairly recognisable. The thing is, we would try to read blind as much as we can, which means that we generally don’t pay any attention to the writer’s bio note until we’ve read their story. And then when you’re reading the story a second or a third time, that bio note might become quite important and might give you extra context. It might lead you to more fully understand what the writer is trying to do: if they come from a particular background that they’re trying to represent or tell the story of, for example, or if they’ve set out to put a spin on a very particular literary style. Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all, but we do find that a lot of the really good stories—when you read the bio note, you realise that there’s been a collaborative or community factor somewhere along the way in this writer’s development. Perhaps it’s in formal creative education, like the writer having completed a masters, or perhaps they are part of a writing group or have completed a writing workshop where they’ve been able to share their work, read it closely with their peers, get feedback on it and learn to contextualise it. We found that with our All New Writers issue, many of the contributors shared writing with a group or with a friend.
When it comes to the creative writing programmes at third level, I can see how saying that a lot of the good stories come from writers with that experience might sound almost like an advantage. And obviously we don’t want to strengthen that conception or misconception that you need a creative writing degree to be a successful writer. We don’t want for that to be a barrier in people’s heads. I don’t have a creative writing degree, I don’t have an MFA. I came from outside of all of that, so you certainly don’t need it. But it raises an interesting question: for people who don’t have access to third-level formalised creative writing courses, how do you get them to that level of polish that these other writers have as a result of that collaborative learning environment? They’ve been able to listen to published writers, they’ve had lecturers who’ve been able to talk to them through this. They’ve had the benefit of sharing their work.
Things like our 6-month workshops, the summer school, the mentorships, all of these are supposed to help bridge that gap. Because it is something that can be quite noticeable. Not always—I mean, the good stuff will always come through anyway—but a lot of the good stuff that does come through, you notice that the writer has some sort of formal qualification, and that cuts against the spirit of art and creativity, a little bit. It’s a developing question. You know, how do we make things more accessible for people as we go forward? The fact that more and more young writers particularly are going to college to get some sort of writing education before they start their writing careers—as we move into the next phase of the next 25 years, how do we respond to that?
Tim Groenland The All New Writers issue is wonderfully eclectic, with the authors clearly drawing from a wide pool of influences—some stories felt ‘Irish’ in the Kevin Barry sense, for example, while others put me in mind of US writers like George Saunders. Do you have a sense of what young writers are reading now?
Lisa McInerney: Sometimes it’s fairly obvious what ‘school’ of creative writing or what type of short story the writer aligns themselves with—for example, that this author is really keen on The Irish Short Story. Though perhaps it’s not as easily recognised as that. I got asked at an event last week whether Frank O’Connor was an influence for me, and I had to say ‘well, no, not really’. And influence doesn’t really matter at the end of the day—what the writer wants to emulate, whether the writer is inspired by somebody—as long as the finished product is something that only they could have written.
And I think that’s what comes through in the really good stories more than anything else. The fact that, yeah, maybe this is Saunders-like, or yeah, maybe this is Kevin Barry-like, but this is not a Kevin Barry story. This is not a George Saunders story. This is not a Mary Gaitskill story. This is this writer’s story. The fact that it clearly comes from a blend of inspiration, talent, craft and influences unique to this writer is exactly what makes it the sort of story we want to read.
Tim Groenland: Is the pool of influences more international than before? You mentioned the international attendees at that information session, for example. The magazine is publishing more work in translation these days, some of it directly supported by a New Translator’s Bursary. There must be more of a sense of The Stinging Fly as something that is not just being read by, but also submitted to, by people all over the world.
Lisa McInerney: Definitely. So in the issue that we’ve got coming out now, we had stories come in from everywhere. It was really heartening. Imagine the first submissions that Declan ever went to the post office to collect—you know, the postal submissions 25 years ago! Little bundles of envelopes, versus stories now being sent in from all ends of the earth.
For this issue we were delighted to receive very impressive work from Uganda, India, Nigeria, UAE, Lebanon, Israel, Spain, Trinidad… We’re publishing a story in translation from Argentina, a story in translation from France, a story from Lesotho, which I’m really excited about because I don’t think I’ve ever read a story sent to us from Lesotho before. It’s really a lovely thing, I think, for an Irish magazine that started out as a small response to an Irish problem, as it were, to have that sense of reach. And to be able to reflect the world back into Ireland is an equally lovely thing. Cultural exchange always being, you know, a force for good. She said, loftily.
Tim Groenland: That’s a suitably lofty note to end on. Thanks!
Our submissions window for Issue 49 is open from Tuesday May 16th until Wednesday May 31st 2023.
Issue 48 Volume Two is now available for purchase – in paperback or as a digital download. It will be launched at 8.30pm on Saturday May 20th as part of International Literature Festival Dublin. Tickets for the event are available here.
Lisa is also participating in another festival event on Saturday at 6pm with editorial colleagues, Danny Denton, Mia Gallagher, Declan Meade and Thomas Morris. More information and tickets available here.