In the Spotlight

James McNulty

James McNulty

Driftwood Press, Managing Fiction Editor

Austin, TX       Member Since: 2016

About: James McNulty is the managing fiction editor at Driftwood Press; he also runs the Driftwood Editing Service, where he gives comprehensive critiques and lessons to new and established writers, some of whom have gone on to publish with magazines such as Tin House. James holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Austin, Texas.

Photo credits: Caitlin Murray & Jeremy Jailal

Find James in the Directory of Members

Who encouraged you to be a writer?
I sat with my mother every night as a child reading the latest children’s book while she read the latest Nora Roberts. In elementary school, I wasn’t a strong typist, so I dictated my handwritten stories for her to type; she wasn’t in charge of the additional clip art, though.

Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
I’m shopping my novel, As They Know It, to agents and publishers. The book is a contemporary take on the novel-through-stories, telling one overarching story through the recurring points of view of twenty small-town denizens. It’s like Goon Squad meets Winesburg, Ohio meets The Hours meets As I Lay Dying. Told through monologues, extracted conversations, stream of consciousness, interviews, and conventional fictional form, the novel’s a fun, neo-modernist exploration of a small town’s reaction to the death of its beloved reclusive artist and the subsequent commercialism of both her paintings and the community itself. The book took me three years of nearly full-time work to write (then rewrite), so I’m looking forward to getting it out there soon.

When do you find time to write?
I’m jealous of folks who “find time.” I have to make time. Dedicating specific days or hours to writing is essential; otherwise, I’ll use those hours to work instead. There are always more submissions to read, more house chores to tend to, more books to read, more of everything else that isn’t writing. The only way to write is to address how important it is to you and structure a time to do it. Setting daily or weekly quotas helps.

What are the editorial philosophies that govern Driftwood Press?
Many presses accept writing “as is,” and there seems an apparent reason for this: many writers fear an editor will take over their work and make unreasonable demands—or demands that conflict with the writer’s “vision” of the work. Perhaps this fear is well founded: there are plenty of shoddy editors out there who aren’t privy to the ethics of editing. The leading editorial philosophy needs to be that the editor should always describe the flaws in a work without ever prescribing how to fix said flaws (the pursuit of remaining a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist); this allows the writer to come up with his or her own solutions, thereby maintaining creative control of the work.

At Driftwood, we work with the writer to polish the writing as much as possible before publication; this usually involves working through three to five drafts with the writer. The first critique is often tough—that first time your work has ever been looked at on such an intensive scale, one to two hundred comments parked up alongside the text—but I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t thankful for (and didn’t greatly benefit from) the process by its end. And, of course, we work on a general “no demands” policy. Though I always expect defenses for the suggestions that aren’t followed, I also allow writers to opt out of whatever suggestions I have for them. By the end, a stronger story is published, and the writer has grown from working so closely with me and my team.

What is the best advice you can give an aspiring writer?
Read the classics. Read the contemporary greats. Read fun writing. Read dense writing. Read academic writing. Read submissions for magazines so that you can spot the contemporary trends, mistakes, and clichés before you give in to them. Read as much as you can, and when you do read, don’t just read for the content. Pay attention to the language, the paragraphs, the punctuation: the execution. Don’t write sentences just for their content; instead, look at a sentence as a piece of art that belongs to a larger work of art. A writer I’m working with for the new issue, Shane Page, separates his paragraphs when revising so that he can look at each of them on their own; this is the type of attention a writer should pay to their writing.

Are there aspects of their development as writers that you feel current submitters may be neglecting? 
Jumping off from the previous question: the language. For many submissions, all of the focus is on the content of the sentence, rather than the sentence itself; the language of these submissions only serves to communicate the point the writer wants to get across. Anyone who dares to innovate with language is banished from the realm of fiction and sent to live with poets. In submissions, I’m always hoping to see more Woolf, more Faulkner, more Bolaño. Standout writing that cares about the language without ever giving in to gimmick. In the age of Twitter, this editor craves something more dense.

Have politics been influencing submissions?
In a political environment where our leaders seem so blatantly corrupt and cruel, it can be difficult to reconcile the idea that they too are human and only shoddy products of their shoddy environment. In the writing community, sociopolitical outrage often results in characters who aren’t much more complex or compelling than the villain in an old Disney movie—thin characters who are too clearly being judged by the author. Also, the opportunism that results from a shared enemy tends to worry me; I’ve received more than a few stories that amount to little more than “Fuck Trump,” and while I agree with the sentiment, it doesn’t make for good writing.

What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them?
Maybe I’m too sentimental, but I have a hard time intentionally damaging books, so they’ll usually look pristine throughout (for this reason, I don’t lend out my favorites). That said, I want to make notations in them, so I have small sticky notes attached to my bookmark so I can place them above paragraphs and sentences that I want to note (sometimes I even write on the sticky note). If it’s a craft or academic book, the pristine policy goes out the window as I take a highlighter to the book and mark it heavily.

Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
Friends who are involved in the contemporary literature community recommend most of the contemporary writing I read. Otherwise, I try to read more classics than new books; they’re classics for a reason—the chance of them being worthwhile is higher than picking up a contemporary book, harsh though that may seem. Also, there are far too many classics; I’ll never catch up on those, let alone the overwhelming amount of contemporary releases. An old professor of mine, Lawrence Broer, who has since become a friend, told me a story about his old professor that’s worth telling here. After class one day, Broer went up to his professor and asked if he’d read a recently released novel; the professor wilted, his lips sagging, and said something along the lines of, “No, I haven’t. I can’t keep up. I can’t read everything,” no doubt fearing that he couldn’t stay up-to-date fast enough to consider himself an expert in his field. A few months later, the professor committed suicide, and that scene after class, which was recounted to me by Broer after one of his classes, is a scene I can’t seem to forget. This story syncs up rather well with the Joyce quote I mentioned earlier; the pursuit of knowledge is never-ending, and that fact can be simultaneously overwhelming and disheartening and enthralling.

Describe your writing process.
I write on the computer because it allows me to toy with the sentences more; if I wrote on a pad, I wouldn’t find great sentence structures as easily, and I doubt I’d be able to read my handwriting by the time I hit page two. In terms of writing every day, I’m not sure that’s a great practice to keep long-term. But if you’re working on an outline or letting ideas percolate, I consider that to equal writing; a writer who’s too prolific doesn’t value each of his or her words—they’re too eager to move to the next one. I suspect that the more time spent with a story, the stronger it’ll be. Carver rewrote his stories upwards of twenty times, and it shows.

In terms of my process, I mostly work in long form, so I find outlines to be extremely useful. When you write, you’re essentially multitasking: you’re figuring out the voice, the plot, the character, the themes, the language, and so many other elements of the story simultaneously, so I think it helps to have already made headway with a few of those elements in the outline beforehand; that way, your attention is freed up to focus on what remains. Two quick examples: if I know from the outline what will happen in the plot, I’m better able to focus on the execution of that plot; if the outline details the plot and characters, I’m free to focus more on the language. The less your mind is being pulled in opposing directions, the more focused and cohesive the resulting draft. That isn’t to say outlining eliminates the drafting process, of course, but I do think it shortens it. If writing is decision-making, outlines allow us to more thoroughly consider those decisions. The danger is when, during drafting, you stick too stringently to the outline; it should only be used as a soft-spoken guide, never blocking you from moving in a newly discovered direction. It’s great to have a guide who leads you through a dense forest, and it’s equally great to break away from that guide when need be to do some unplanned exploring.

What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
I watch films, read, or stare at my outline. I think “writer’s block” is just a dramatic term for not being able to find the time to think about what to write. If I’m struggling to find an idea or the will to write, I’ll read a craft book or a work I know will inspire me. I’ll read a book or story by a favorite writer, or I’ll watch a film by a favorite director. This month, I’ve been watching the multipart Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day by R. W. Fassbinder at my local AFS art cinema, and I always leave the showing feeling energized to write something; when you admire something great, the passion flows.

Who/what do you follow online?
Facebook became such a mess that I moved to Instagram and only follow artists—mostly graphic novelists like Brecht Evens, Jaime Hernandez, Anders Nilsen, Eleanor Davis, Gipi, Christophe Chaboute, Simon Hanselmann, and Inio Asano.

Do you own an e-reader? How has that changed your relationship to books?
I’ve been reading submissions on an iPad for years. Nostalgia aside, my head can’t handle prolonged reading on a screen, so books are by far preferred, even if they cost a little more.

What are you reading right now?
Reading hundreds of submissions for Driftwood each month takes up a large chunk of my reading time, but I’m also partway through reading Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp for the second time, as well as Kafka’s The Trial (persuaded by Milan Kundera’s essay on it), and the most recent issue of Film Comment. I have a few other graphic novels and magazines spread out throughout the house that I’m also working through. The life of a reader can be overwhelming; there’s so much good writing out there and there’s no way to keep up.

Do you have a favorite line from a book?
“It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away. First came the vacation and then the next term and then vacation again and then again another term and then again the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of the ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep.” –James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Probably everyone has heard this quote before, but it still strikes me as a flawless passage. Not only the content—a reminder to stay humble, that we can’t know everything, though we may try—but also the lyricism in the language. William Faulkner always said he was a failed poet, and I can only wish the same of myself and the writers I work with.

Would you like to write a book? Which genre?
I’d love to write an entire novel in stream of consciousness (which young writers too often confuse with auto-writing), or a poetry book masquerading as a novel (like Bolaño’s Antwerp). I’m beginning to outline and rough an experimental book that borrows plot points from classic foreign films (Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Kieslowski, Truffaut, etc.) to create some sort of commentary on the individual identity smashing up against the collective identity. I’ve also started to write a craft book.

Which book should be required reading for young people?
I think The Great Gatsby is typically required reading, thankfully. That’s a great book for introducing young readers to literature. The themes are just under the surface—don’t take much digging—yet the writing is careful. My poetry editor and I are also huge supporters of graphic narrative, which has evolved far beyond an entry point into reading—but it still works for that.

What would be your advice to new AWP members on how to make the most of their membership?
Go to the conference; meet great presses and offer to read their slush pile for free. You’ll never learn as much in such a concentrated amount of time; it’s free education. One of my editors told me she learned more from a two-month guest editorship with us than she learned through all her years of undergraduate studies. AWP connects writers and publishers, so take advantage of that.

What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
Meeting fans of our magazine and folks we’ve previously published. Our writing community is spread out across the fifty states and beyond, so writers and editors become used to forging relationships over their email in-boxes. Meeting those people in person every year is always a pleasure.

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