In the Spotlight
D.L. Jordan Endowed Professor of Creative Writing, Columbus State University
Columbus, GA Member Since: 2004
About: Allen Gee is the editor for both the multicultural imprint 2040 Books and the new imprint DLJ Books. He is also the D.L. Jordan Endowed Professor at Columbus State University and will direct the CSU Writers Conference. Author of the essay collection My Chinese America (SFWP), Gee has recently completed his novel The Iron Road and is currently working on James Alan McPherson's biography.
Photo credit: Renee Dodd
How do you balance your work as a writer and as an editor of others’ writing?
I do my own writing first, in the morning. Once I start a piece, I work on it every day, no matter what, until a draft is finished, and then until a revision is finished. I find it easier to edit other people’s work during the day or early evening. I used to drink a lot of coffee, but now I save coffee drinking for the morning. I feel very fortunate that I’ve avoided cigarettes.
What is the best advice you can give an aspiring writer?
If you're young and gifted, you're fortunate, but if you have to work at the craft of writing, by reading and putting your stories or essays or chapters through countless revision, there's so much reward and personal satisfaction ahead of you.
What persons in your life or aspects of your life’s journey have most profoundly influenced your work?
I look back, and I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been. My first writing teacher at the University of New Hampshire was Thomas Williams. He was a National Book Award winner and published ten books during his lifetime. My second teacher at New Hampshire was the novelist John Yount, who is a fine writer, with the most unique voice. Williams and Yount provided me with a lot of encouragement, telling me that I should apply to graduate school. At the Iowa Workshop James Alan McPherson took me under his wing and became my mentor; he was the most significant teacher that I ever had. We maintained an intellectual conversation for over two and a half decades before he passed away, and I miss him a lot. I also worked with the late Joan Chase at Iowa; she taught me about line cadence and word choices. At the University of Houston, I was able to study with Rosellen Brown, who remains an advisor and friend; I value everything she has to say.
Is there a particular writer with whom you dream of working?
I would have loved to have been John Okada’s editor. I've never met John Irving, and my first teacher, Thomas Williams, was Irving's first teacher, so it would be fun to work with Irving and to talk about early University of New Hampshire days.
What do you like in a story, whether fiction or nonfiction? Comedy? Tragedy? Hope? Heart?
I've always liked heartbreaking tragic works, but to balance this out I've always like gritty realist survivor stories or works with a sliver of hope.
Do you have a favorite line from a book? Or, is there a book that made you fall in love with literature?
There's the last line from the early story "A Matter of Vocabulary" by my mentor, James Alan McPherson, that I first really learned about tragedy and epiphany from: "She came always in the night to scream because she, like himself, was in misery, and did not know what else to do."
I had a course as an undergraduate with an inspiring professor, Dr. Sarah Sherman, so I read a lot of Jane Austen novels in the library. I can still remember reading all of those novels in quiet rooms, right until when the library would close. But the first books that I read by a minority writer that moved me were by Richard Wright.
What are some of the greatest challenges facing small press publishers and editors today?
I think that if you go into publishing with an awareness, and if you take the time to do your homework about costs and deadlines, small press publishing can be an exciting field to work in. Editing is time consuming; I bring all of my attention to the editing process when working with a writer. You always have to strike the right balance, supporting the author with what they’ve intended to do, and not rewriting or commandeering a manuscript.
What can we do to bring a more diverse community of writers to our print and online literary journals?
This is an issue that I’ve dealt with since I was an editor at Gulf Coast. You have to actively solicit established diverse writers, but you also have to nurture promising, diverse writers. By nurture, I mean reading and sometimes offering some comments to an up-and-coming writer for a story or an essay, and then reading a revision of that story or essay. That kind of additional effort has led to publication for several pieces for me as an editor of work by writers of color that I otherwise might not have been able to put into print.
Is there a manuscript published in the last ten years that you wish had come across your desk?
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer.
What are your favorite literary magazines?
I used to be the editor of Gulf Coast, and I was the fiction editor for Arts & Letters, so in those cases I'm biased, but I also like Ploughshares, The Asian American Literary Review, Terrain, Lumina, The Common, The Rio Grande Review, Solstice, and The Iowa Review.
Who are your favorite literary publishers?
Let's just go with small presses: SFWP published my essay collection; they're an independent press with a twenty-year history. I've always liked Coffee House Press for their attention to Asian American writers, and I like Graywolf, Milkweed, UGA Press, Kaya Press, Two Leaf Press, City Lights Publishers, and Hawthorne Books.
What are you reading right now?
The books on my nightstand are Rosellen Brown's The Lake On Fire, J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place, Andre Joseph Gallant’s A High Low Tide, Tommy Orange's There There, Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant, and two older books, David Brion Davis's In Human Bondage and Daisaku Ikeda's Glass Children and Other Essays.
How do you like to receive queries? What will automatically end up in your “we’re not interested” pile? What will catch your eye as a manuscript that needs a closer look?
2040 Books has a contest, the James Alan McPherson Award, running now that ends December 15, 2018, and DLJ Books has a contest with a $10,000 prize that will open in February and close in August. I actually like reading what comes in blind, without my being pitched, but at the same time I'll be soliciting queries at the AWP Bookfair at a table this year. What I'm most interested in is when a writer has a completed manuscript. So many writers have a book that they talk about writing, but I'm more impressed when someone has done the real work already.
What is the best lesson you have learned from a book?
I've always liked seeing how a writer handles the plot during the middle of a book, or what a writer does to keep the story moving, since there's always a natural excitement from beginning, and also, to borrow from Kermode's title, there's always a “sense of an ending.” What I’ve learned over the years is that there have to be a lot of high dramatic points during the course of a novel or a memoir, which can be in so many ways true to life.
Share your favorite memory from your desk at work.
I don't have a favorite memory from my desk, but I read for a lot of friends and students, and I never tire of hearing the news from someone that they've just published an essay, story, or a book that I once took a look at and line-edited or provided comments for. That kind of news keeps me going.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
I've just finished a novel, The Iron Road, that focuses on a Chinese railroad worker who helped to build the Central Pacific Railroad in California in 1866. I'm currently writing James Alan McPherson's biography; the ironic working title is At Little Monticello. There are also two future projects that I'd like to have time for: a subversive essay collection called Americana, and an essay collection about fly fishing the country's great trout streams.
What is the biggest challenge you face in promoting writing?
As the editor for two small press imprints, the biggest challenge is always to make sure that an author's title is properly promoted. The other challenge for a small press is increasing publicity budgets, but the internet has changed a lot of this.
What is your imprint’s mission?
2040 Books seeks to provide writers of color with more publishing opportunities. Not every aspiring writer can find an agent and be signed with a New York press for a book contract. DLJ Books provides another outlet for deserving writers who might not otherwise be published, and the imprint also seeks to publish literature that promotes human values.
How does your organization work on behalf of its members, constituents, or clients?
2040 Books serves writers of color and provides students with editing experience and internship opportunities. The Donald L. Jordan endowment at Columbus State University serves writers and the community through DLJ Books, a biannual writing conference, and it sends our undergrad students on biannual service trips to foreign countries, so that these students can write about their experiences.
What are some of the proudest accomplishments of your organization since its inception?
For 2040 Books, the release of our first title, Bonnie Chau's short story collection All Roads Lead to Blood, was a proud occurrence. The book has received a starred Kirkus Review, was named one of Buzzfeed’s Best Books for Fall 2018, was listed by Lit Hub as one of the fifteen books you should read in September, and Coil Magazine named the collection one of the most anticipated September 2018 books. IPG chose it as one of its top fall staff picks, and the collection has received impressive reviews from Library Journal, Heavy Feather Review, and Sinkhole Magazine. This kind of success has made us look forward to publishing more books by writers of color. I'm looking forward to the same type of critical praise for manuscripts that DLJ Books publishes.
How have you seen your imprint grow and change over the years? How have your outreach efforts changed?
2040 Books’ first contest did well, and this year's contest has more entries due to the critical success of the first title. Our first contest judge was Mat Johnson, and this year's judge is Gish Jen; both are highly respected writers, and this lets entrants know about the quality of the imprint. I maintain a Facebook page for 2040 Books, but we have a staff member, Morgan Coyner, who handles 2040's Twitter account, and quite frankly, I couldn't do a quarter of what she does. We also advertise in major trade publications. The same efforts will be undertaken for DLJ Books.
What have you found to be the most successful ways to recruit staff?
Students at Columbus State University will be working as editorial interns and helping with publicity and promotion for both 2040 Books and DLJ Books. It's all part of an undergraduate experience that seeks to professionalize students for future careers as writers or if they want to work in publishing.
You are organizing a new writer’s conference. What will it bring to the community in which it lives?
The first CSU Writers Conference will be held in fall 2020. We’ll have panel presentations, workshops for high school students, and evening readings that are open to the public. We’re aiming for a “boutique” type conference that doesn’t compete with AWP but offers writers something to attend that they can easily drive to if they’re in the southeast. Fall in Columbus is an opportune time of year, and we have great reading spaces, museums, libraries, restaurants and coffee shops and bars. There’s really something for everyone.
What programs would you like to develop and create for your organization/program?
With 2040 Books and DLJ Books and a biannual writing conference and service trips to foreign countries, my days are full; I have enough challenging work now for the rest of my academic career.
Describe the region where your organization is housed. What is the literary community like?
2040 Books and DLJ Books aren’t really limited by geography. We can read submissions from all over the country, or we can read international submissions. Columbus State University is an hour and half southwest of Atlanta; it's a terrific city. The community supports that arts, and we have some amazing facilities for readings, as well as first-class art galleries and museums.
Why did you decide to join AWP? Has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
I taught at Georgia College for thirteen years, and we were an AWP member institution. I've been fortunate to present or moderate as part of twenty AWP panels, but what I liked most when I started out was walking through the bookfair and meeting journal and small press editors. It's the one time of the year when you can make connections and easily find out about new publishing opportunities.
What would be your advice to new AWP members on how to make the most of their membership?
All of the AWP website listings have been a helpful resource for me at one time or another. For the conference, go through the AWP website and see how much there is. The conference can be overwhelming, so I do take the time to look in advance and mark panel presentations and readings and make sure that I go to them.
If there were one thing that you wished AWP did, what would it be?
I wish AWP had some larger receptions after the big readings at the annual conference, so that more people who attended a reading could have a chance to meet the author. I think AWP could hold some regional events, so that the national conference isn't the only opportunity that writers have to be on a panel or present. More importantly, I wish that AWP could have the same accreditation clout that other agencies do, like SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), so that graduate and undergraduate creative writing programs wouldn't have to constantly lobby like they do with their administrations to maintain workshop sizes, increase graduate student stipends, have support for reading series, artist-in-residence programs, etc.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
I actually have three favorite memories. The first is finding my friend, the late Derick Burleson, at the bookfair. He was sitting at a table in the bookfair, and because he lived and taught at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska, he had an enormous thick beard the likes of which I'd never seen on him before—this made me burst out laughing—and I love the memory of how happy he was, because he told me that he'd sold out all of his poetry books, so we were able to take off and go eat seafood. My other favorite memory is hearing Claudia Rankine giving the keynote address; it felt like part of a major shift in the landscape of how attention was being brought to minority students in graduate creative writing programs. The third and most important memory is that I met my wife, Renee Dodd, in 2002 at the AWP Conference in New Orleans; we shared a taxi with mutual friends on the way to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and we've been together ever since.