By SR Fall 2015 students
The Fall 2015 student interns and part-time employees at SR had a chance to chat with Aimee Baker, visiting lecturer at SUNY Plattsburgh and Fiction Editor at the Saranac Review. She received her MFA in Fiction from Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Massachusetts Review, Witness, and Black Warrior Review. Her collection of poems, Doe, is a finalist for the 2015 St. Lawrence Book Award.
Below is how the conversation went:
Njeri Wright: Just to give some background information. You are a poet, lecturer, ‘fictioneer,’ a wife, a mother, a fiction editor, and an awesome advisor. Did I get all of that correct? Please tell me if I am missing anything. So the obvious question is how do you do it all?
I think that pretty much covers it. In every given moment I am all of those things, but sometimes parts of my identity, parts of what I need to do, or who I need to be, take precedence over the others. I’m always a mother, but some days I’m much more actively engaged in the process of mothering than others. Some days I just have to acknowledge that I won’t get any writing down on the page, but I’ll make some awesome handprint turkeys with my toddler. The same holds true with being a writer. I’m always collecting and storing information, but the moments of sitting down to do the work aren’t always there so I work how I can. For instance, even though I’m in the interview with you here, part of my brain is processing an essay that I’m working on.
Sara Doolen: What inspired you to pursue a writing career?
I didn’t think I was going to pursue writing. I’d received some early criticism when I was a teenager where someone whose opinion I valued asked me to try to write about something “nice” because I tend to write about subjects people feel are “dark” in some way. Now, I realize that this is a criticism that’s levied at women all the time. There’s some expectations about the topics you should be interested in or writing about when you’re a woman and my work doesn’t quite fit.
Thankfully, in college, I met the man who is now my husband. He’s also a writer, but he encouraged me to take a writing class as an undergraduate. And I took another class and another until eventually it was what I wanted in my life as a part of my career path, but more importantly as a part of how to see myself.
Njeri Wright: You are exemplary of the infamous Helen Reddy opening song line, “I am woman, hear me roar.” On top of your many roles and positions, you work on independent projects and writing pieces which have been featured in what seems like an innumerable amount of publications. Seriously, how are you this good?! Amidst all of your endeavors, how do you carve out time to write? How do you choose which pieces to publish? Is it a painstakingly, grueling process or do you like to have fun with it?
I’m always at work on my writing, but it doesn’t always mean I have the time to physically write. Finding time to write has been an evolving process that really changed dramatically once I had my daughter. I used to have all of these large spaces of time to work. I envy my former self, but I’m actually much more tenaciously dedicated to my writing and writing process now. I use up what time I have in any sense. I’ve written in parking lots and in the few minutes before I have to leave to teach a class. If my students are doing an exercise I try to do the exercise along with them. Writing now is all about grabbing any moments I can.
As for the writing itself, I am a slow and methodical writer. I typically won’t go through big sweeping revisions on a piece because I tend to know where I’m going when I start and then agonize over every step it takes to get to that end. I also don’t have a lot of extra work hanging around. Certainly there’s pieces I’ve tucked away for later because I need to be a better writer for what I want to do with them, but, for the most part, once I commit to writing something I see it through the writing and publication process. The writing itself can be rather painstaking, but in a beautiful way. I almost always fall in love with what I’m working on. The falling out of love with it enough to work on it again is the painful part.
Chelsey Van Der Munnik: What was your first piece, or pieces, published and how did it feel that first time?
I was in the MFA program at Arizona State when I found out my short story, “A Natural History,” was selected for publication by The Southeast Review. I remember working on it at a drive-in theater trying to jot down lines in the light from the movie screen. After it was done, I brought it to a workshop class where it seemed, at the time, to be universally despised. The thing with workshops is that the very thing that can be valuable, having direct connection to a room of readers, can also be the downfall of the piece if, for whatever reason, they’re not the right audience for it. I took the story home, cried a little over it, and then realized that my vision for the piece was what mattered. I submitted it without making substantial changes. It received a handful of rejections before it was accepted. Later, it was given a Pushcart nomination. I fully confess to being an externally motivated person. I own that about myself. So when it was selected for publication it was a reaffirmation about trusting myself as a writer and trusting my work.
Chelsey Van Der Munnik: You have several pieces about unidentified women – what about this topic drew you in to write about?
The project, as a whole, is a poetry manuscript that deals with missing and unidentified women in the United States. It’s fifty poems long and covers the stories of almost seventy women.
There’s really multiple reasons that I was drawn to this work, and it’s work that I feel like I never will leave behind. The first is that I was living in Phoenix on the ninth anniversary of the discovery of Maricopa Jane Doe, a beautiful young woman with a blue heart tattoo. She’d died after being thrown from a moving car on the I-10. Her story fascinated me because it seemed so absurd that so many years had passed without discovering who she was (she has since been identified as Tawni Lee Mazzone). I started researching and found thousands of cases of unidentified persons. Thousands of missing persons cases. It was as though a giant wound opened up inside of me and I wanted to do something about it and what I can do, what I know to do, is to write about it.The second part is that as a woman who has experienced various forms of violence, dealing with issues that surround those topics is important to me. The fragility of our existence is highlighted by these cases. It can take less than ten seconds for someone to overpower you and put you in the trunk of a car. This is what we live with as women, this constant threat of being removed from our lives. And, it seemed to me, that missing persons cases are the epitome of this fear and this state of being. One minute you’re in your life and the next you’re simply gone.
Ashley LaVasseur: How do you think your ability to read submissions has grown since you began your editorial process?
I started working on literary journals when I began the MFA program at Arizona State University. Selecting a program with a strong literary journal and opportunities for editorships was important to me when I was looking at MFA programs and Hayden’s Ferry Review had a particularly strong history of student engagement.When I started reading I still wasn’t confident in myself as a writer or as an editor at any level. I read for Hayden’s Ferryfor three years as an associate editor and later as the prose editor. I continued reading for them after I graduated and now I’m the Fiction Editor here. Nothing has helped my writing as much as reading for a literary journal. Not only are you exposed to just an abundance of work, you have to make value judgements on that work. We receive so many well-written submissions, but at the end of the day you have to decide what to publish and you have to understand why you made that decision. As time has passed, I understand more clearly what my preferences are which makes it easier, in some ways, to make those decisions.
Wendy Truong: When you’re reading fiction for Saranac Review, what are you looking for in a story?
I want for the work I read to tear my heart out. To turn a light on in the dark. I’m not talking about melodrama or an abundance of emotion here. What I want from a story is for it to function on at least two levels. The first, is that I want a good story. I want there to be tension and plot and characters that fascinate me. I often read stories that are light on plot or are low in tension so a story would have to be functioning exceedingly well in other areas for me to get excited about it enough to pass it up the editorial line.
The other thing I’m looking for the story to say something. So the piece has to be both entertaining and meaningful. I always ask myself, “Why this story? Why does this story need to be told? Why is this a story I want other people to read?” If I can’t find good answers to that, it’s even harder for me to say yes.On a personal level I have a bunch of preferences. I love stories of witness or of the grotesque. I love magical realism. I love works that play with form. Those preferences are really secondary, though.
Amanda Mahoney: Do you ever feel like you read the same story over and over?
I wouldn’t say I read the same story over and over, but I would say that I see interest in certain topics or tropes. Sometimes I see the same imagery being used. I think writers are drawn to types of stories, like the failing marriage story or the parent dying story, because there’s naturally-ingrained tension there. For a bit I was seeing a lot of what I labeled the “suburban story” in which characters wander around suburban landscapes filled with ennui which I think spoke to this certain placelessness and discomfort with contemporary life in those landscapes.