Interview: Vela Magazine Founder Sarah Menkedick on Women Writers and Sustainable Publishing

Cheri Lucas Rowlands | Longreads | Oct. 2 2014 | 10 minutes (2,399 words)

 

Three years ago, Sarah Menkedick launched Vela Magazine in response to the byline gender gap in the publishing industry, and to create a space that highlights excellent nonfiction written by women. Last week, Menkedick and her team of editors launched a Kickstarter campaign to grow Vela as a sustainable publication for high-quality, long-form nonfiction, to pay their contributors a competitive rate, and to continue to ensure that women writers are as recognized and read as their male counterparts. Menkedick chatted with Longreads about her own path as a writer, the writer’s decision to work for free, building a sustainable online publication, and the importance of featuring diverse voices in women’s nonfiction.

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Let’s talk about Vela’s origins. You created Vela in 2011 as a space for women writers in response to the byline gender gap — yet it’s not a “women’s magazine.” Can you explain?

Like so many women writers, I was discouraged by the original VIDA count in 2011. I was also a bit disenchanted with a certain narrowness of voice and focus in mainstream magazine publishing, which tended to be very male, because men tend to dominate mainstream magazine publishing. Talking about the alternative to that gets really dicey, because it’s icky to talk about a “womanly” or “female” voice. I wanted to say: nonfiction and literary journalism written by women doesn’t have to sound like this sort of swaggering male writing, or like the loveable snarky-but-sweet meta writing of John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace. It can be like . . . and there we run short on models, because there aren’t very many women being widely published whose work falls into that middle zone between “creative nonfiction” — which tends to be more academic, more experimental, more the types of essays appearing in literary magazines — and traditional journalism.

Leslie Jamison has emerged as a really great model, and I’m so excited to see her work take off. There’s also Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose voice is so distinct and funny and humble and insightful, and Rebecca Solnit. Eula Biss’s recent work straddles this line between essay and journalism in super-interesting ways.

Who are some women writers whose work you admire?

There are so many — Annie Dillard is my all-time favorite writer, and I love her unabashed intensity and her language. I admire Isak Dinesen and also Beryl Markham, a lesser-known writer who knew Dinesen in Africa, and whose book West With The Night is phenomenal but rarely mentioned nowadays. In terms of literary journalists, Jeanne Marie Laskas, of course, and Ariel Levy, Alma Guillermoprieto, Janet Malcolm (embarrassed to admit I just read Iphigenia in Forest Hills and it rocked my world), Sarah Stillman, and Katherine Boo. I love literary journalism by writers who don’t typically write journalism, like Karen Russell (one of my favorite fiction writers) and Vanessa Veselka. I also just discovered the Irish writer Anne Enright and I adore her. In terms of essayists: Jo Ann Beard, Natalia Ginzburg . . . there are too many to name. You can find more on Vela’s Unlisted List of women writers.

Is Vela emulating that kind of writing by women?

I wanted Vela to be a space for this kind of work, for voice-driven nonfiction that could be intellectually and creatively free-ranging, without being defined either by the (predominately male) standards of mainstream publishing or by the moniker of “women’s,” and therefore lesser and limited in subject.

I was also frustrated with the fact that men’s magazines like GQ and Esquire were publishing this top-notch nonfiction that was getting anthologized and winning awards and generally being celebrated as exceptional writing with no talk of gender, whereas women’s magazines were almost entirely sidelined as — forgive me the academic-speak — “other.” I think this is partially the problem of women’s magazines’ marketing, advertising, and branding, and partially the way in which writing by women tends to be defined and cast off as personal in the way writing by men (of an equally “personal” nature, equally reliant on the first person) does not, something I’ve written about in the past.

The personal essay and memoir is often viewed as primarily female territory. The use of ‘I’ can come off as self-indulgent, and, perhaps, is viewed as less serious when used by women. Can you touch upon that?

I’m still obsessed with that terrain between the personal, the reported, and the essayistic/analytical. If anything, that’s a theme I’d like to see addressed on Vela: the way in which the memoir craze has, perhaps, made people hyper-sensitive about personal writing, and there seems to be this backlash against the “I.” Leslie Jamison has written some wonderful essays about that, and I think it’s territory that’s really ripe for exploration.

Ultimately, I wanted to create a publication that would be written by women because I wanted to say hey, women can do this kind of voice-driven innovative nonfiction, too, and you should be hiring and publishing them and reading their work, and also because I wanted to read more of this kind of work and find more women writers working between limited categories. I wanted a space that would not be marketed to women as dealing with “women’s” subjects, since I think part of the reason the byline gap exists is because certain subjects are considered “women’s” and marginalized, whereas men can write about anything without the subject being considered “male.” Also, while women are ushered toward these more “female” arenas, men are given meatier reporting assignments, and more dangerous and competitive assignments, as well as the intellectual freedom to write essays or criticism on a wide array of topics. One of the goals of Vela’s current Kickstarter campaign is to fund bigger, more ambitious projects by women writers.

Can you share a bit of your journey as a writer?

I’ll spare you the whole “I knew from the moment I wrote a prize-winning short story about a flying cat in fourth grade” spiel because really, I came to writing pretty late. I always loved writing, but it was secondary to whatever else I was studying; it was simply the medium for ideas. In college, I managed to major in a subject even less practical than writing: history of science. I assumed for a long time that I’d go back to school and get a Ph.D. in history. But then I spent almost a decade traveling and in the process came into writing not as part of a larger discipline, but as a discipline in and of itself. As much as this sounds like a statement from a cheesy application for a travel writing scholarship, writing was the natural way I made sense of all of those complex ethical questions of cultural relativism and difference, of the impacts American travelers have on the places they visit and of the ways they conceive of these places; in writing, I started to realize that these questions fascinated me.

When I returned to Mexico in 2008 after a year in Beijing, I decided not to take a teaching job and to instead “make a living from writing.” It took me about, oh, two weeks to realize that making a living from writing and writing what I wanted to write were two vastly different things.

I lived on about $400 a month for several years in Oaxaca, Mexico, grading Korean TOEFL prep exams and maintaining a blog named after a Cortázar short story. I used a few essays from that blog to apply to an MFA program in 2009, and was really lucky to be accepted with full funding. That gave me three years of paid writing time and made a huge difference in my career — not so much because of the time, which I had in Mexico, but because of the immersion in a world that had writing as its center. Talking about writing, talking about reading, reading, critiquing, teaching — it all fed my work. People criticize MFAs, but for me it was the first time I’d actually analyzed writing as craft, and it made a huge difference.

Above all, it taught me how to read as a writer. During the MFA, I did an internship at Harper’s, which was hugely educational and which I’d recommend to anyone who can afford to suck up the expense of living for a few months in New York with no income. I also founded Vela. Honestly, Vela has made my career. The site has gotten some really nice recognition and the experience of running it, editing, being edited, has taken my writing to another level. Editors have read the work I published there and encouraged me to pitch, and — I think this is an issue particular to women writers — I really needed that encouragement, that permission.

The goal of your Kickstarter campaign is to raise money so you can pay your writers. I’m curious about your own take on writing for free and exposure.

Thanks for asking about this. I know all of us at Vela have felt angsty and stressed about not paying writers ever since we opened to submissions. I also think, however, and I wonder how I can say this without seeming defensive, that it is extremely difficult to be paid for art. I cringe at using the term “art,” which seems like such a lofty horrible proclamation to be made in a fedora at some bar with antique sailing fixtures, but I think if you’re not writing journalism and you’re not writing for commercial magazines — in short, if you’re not writing on assignment for someone else — then it is very difficult to be paid for your work. This has always been true; artists and writers have struggled to find patrons, whether people or institutions.

Here is where I think many writers who are strident about always getting paid for your writing go wrong — when you’re just starting out, you’re probably not going to get paid for your painfully overwrought essay about your transformation in Chiapas (to take an example from my experience). If your goal is to get paid, you’re probably going to be writing service pieces for commercial mags, and then you’re going to be a paid writer but you’re going to wind up doing a very particular type of writing, with limited creative freedom. So you can choose that route, or you can choose to write what you want to write, and the latter route might take years and years before it becomes financially sustainable. In the beginning, because you’re just not good or experienced enough, and later because unfortunately there are fewer and fewer places that pay a decent rate for essays in particular. For Ursula Le Guin, it took 20 years.

Two, I think there’s a whole realm in between that typical dichotomy we’ve created between “for free” and its assumed opposite, “paid” — and then we have the whole issue of publications that claim to pay their writers and pay $20. There are ways, that is, to fund your writing that don’t necessarily mean getting paid by a publication: MFAs, fellowships, lifestyle arrangements. My intention here is not at all to say that publications shouldn’t pay — I think they absolutely should, and I’ll get to that in a second. But I think beginning writers have to find creative ways to make it work, and can’t assume they’ll be getting $1/word for their work. I spent years doing writing “for free,” and I think that has paid off. Literally. It got me into an MFA. The writing I did for Vela, for free, got me big assignments at magazines. It got me contacts, connections, a community, and now, after three years, the potential for funding a magazine I deeply believe in.

Hopefully all that work we’ve put in says hey, we’re legit, we have experience, and trust us to fund great writers and fund our publication. And I think I can speak for the other founding members of Vela in saying that the experience they got in writing long-form pieces, in editing and being edited, in publishing stories they could share with editors and use as clips, has gotten them to much more advanced stages of their careers. We’ve all gone on to score some big bylines, fellowships, residencies, and jobs.

And then I really do believe that after this initial period there comes a time when you say, okay, now I need to be paid. I think all of us writers at Vela have reached that point. And I think Vela has reached the point as a publication where it needs to start paying its writers to be reputable.

What impact do you think the internet and new publishing technologies have had on women in the writing world?

I am of the persuasion that the great democratizing force of the internet is a fantastic thing for young writers, women writers, writers who’ve historically been excluded from the conversation. I remember this anecdote about a male writer — I think it was Chris Jones — literally knocking on the door of an editor in NYC, asking the editor to read his work. Shockingly, this worked. I could not imagine a woman doing this or getting away with it, but now the internet and spaces like Vela allow women to do just that. Hey! Here I am! Here’s my work.

Of course, the downside of that is that the internet has established this really pervasive expectation that everything should be free and everything should be shareable. I think for the internet to continue to be an empowering and liberating force for writers we’re going to have to seek new publishing models that ask readers to pay for content: via subscriptions, single issues, single stories . . . this is why Vela is making this push now to pay our writers, because we want to be part of a new and upcoming group of publications that is making the commitment to more sustainable digital publishing.

If you could direct new readers to one Vela piece, which one would it be?

Oh no, please don’t ask me to do this! You know I’m going to recommend a whole slew of them, but please don’t judge me — I have three years of writing to choose from. Simone Gorrindo’s An Unwanted Guest is a breathtaking piece. Amanda Giracca’s Lives and Past Lives is a fabulous, slow-burning essay on domesticity that stays with you long after you read it. Miranda Ward’s The Purest Form of Play is one of those pieces I return to when I start to feel cynical and burnt out. A personal favorite, a piece I worked on with a lovely writer who was so generous and insightful and great with edits, is Lilac Stitches, about motherhood, Soviet Russia, and sewing. And Molly Beer’s Fire Ants is a stunning essay that weaves her experience teaching in El Salvador with the history of deported Central American gang members.

I could keep going. I suppose, if we’re really only picking one, read our manifesto!

[vimeo 107522542 w=600&h=400]

This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.