Interview With bioStories
Author: Mark Leichliter
Why did you start bioStories?
I had been teaching writing courses at universities for a long while and continually saw the incredible, often moving nonfiction produced by my students, as well as the innovative, compelling nonfiction I’d been using as models with students. In creative nonfiction, a natural place for students still trying to find their voices and their terrain is the personal. And teaching writers is such an intimate experience, both in the process, and often, particularly with nonfiction derived from the personal, in the material shared. Writers can sometimes share in their work parts of themselves they might hesitate to share even among their closest friends. Combine this sort of experience with the simple reality that if you really venture into the world and come to know people, again and again they blow you away with their intelligence, their vision, and the natural drama and comedy of their life experiences. I wanted to give voice to such people but do so in a way that was demanding of the artistic expression we see in fine writing all the time. Take these desires together with my daily annoyance that we live in a culture where it seems we tend to fixate on the loudest voices in the room—the media darlings and pundits and fifteen second stars—and I began to imagine a publication that shared the experiences of lives worth knowing, lives that, while expressed with eloquence, might sound a lot more like your or me or the people we know. I saw only a small number of publications dedicated to nonfiction and the literary essay. Many of those lived in niches and few focused almost exclusively on the personal narrative or on profiles of intriguing people. Our mission statement says that we believe grace can be found in every life, and we truly believe that.
What is your literary background like? What got you interested in starting a literary journey?
I had been writing and publishing on my own since the early 90’s. I continue, like many, to mix lives as a writer and as an editor. But I’d also been teaching writing through most of my career as well, so I was constantly exposed to writers—those well-established and those learning the ropes. Both inspired me. I had worked as a graduate student on for a couple of different journals, had started some focused on student work on my campus, and cherished the role journals and their editors had served for me in publishing my own work. Starting bioStories felt like a way to represent writing that felt underrepresented in the marketplace and a way to give back.
What have you gained from working for bioStories? How has this experience changed your perspective of reading literature and the process of maintaining a literary magazine?
I often tell writers after we have accepted their work and have moved through the editing process to publication, “Welcome to the bioStories family.” It feels that way to me, that writers and editors become family, become comrades. We want to celebrate and share their work. Editing a publication offers reminders about how much good writing is out there, as well as how brave and sensitive writers can be. I remain amazed by what some people have lived through or about how much compassion they employ when they encounter the world or how greatly all our lives are constantly transforming.
Another kind of learning that has accompanied editing the magazine is the reminder of how difficult it can be to cultivate an audience. We live in a culture where there is so much vying for our attention and so many demands placed on our time. Yet we desperately need pieces that demand something of us as readers and that have room for enough development to say something meaningful about the universe. That’s a delicate balancing act, particularly in an electronic medium—trying to provide in-depth, substantive treatment and preserve some economy at the same time. I want to publish pieces that grab readers by their … you can select your own anatomy here … and make them know they must read the piece through to the end; perhaps the reader only has to give the piece fifteen minutes of his or her day, but the impact of the piece may linger within them for days or weeks. But even fifteen minutes can be quite a request in a Twitter culture.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
In nonfiction, which is the sole focus of bioStories, I could never talk about favorites without mentioning Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Scott Russell Sanders, and Barry Lopez. There is a part of bioStories that harkens back to Joseph Mitchell and E.B. White. Others I would put on a short list would include: Erik Larson, Michael Lewis, Michael Pollan, Oliver Sacks, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rebecca Skloot, Terry Tempest Williams, David Sedaris.
While I edit a nonfiction journal, I’m primarily a fiction writer, and that list could go on forever.
What advice would you give for writers submitting to bioStories?
Probably the same advice as every editor gives—read some of what we publish. It really is the only way to get a feel for our sensibilities. I like to think that the magazine doesn’t operate out of any kind of bias, but I’m sure close reading would reveal some of our tastes. And, again, what every editor will tell a writer, please read our guidelines and follow them. We have a specialized focus and submitting writers should know that.
What are you working on in your own work right now?
I’m very near completion of the first draft of a crime novel set on and around Flathead Lake in Montana.
What is the next exciting thing happening at bioStories? Where do you see bioStories in 5 years?
We have, over the last couple of years, embarked on holding annual contests. We’re still in final deliberation about the next theme, but that will be announced in the near future. We try and take full advantage of being an on-line publication and publish new work weekly rather than waiting for quarterly or semi-annual issues, although we do also gather our work semi-annually and place it within a digital edition for a more traditional magazine experience. However, we had good luck with a thematic anthology of a dozen great pieces that appeared here and plan on releasing another anthology, in print and as an ebook, this year.
In five years, more than anything, I’d like to see our audience continue to grow and to cultivate readers who come back every week. I’d like to fashion more of an ongoing conversation with readers in this way, and have them anticipate what new, great piece they’ll see next week. We’re publishing absolutely fantastic writers covering an eclectic array of material, so more than anything I’d simply like to expose them to more and more readers.