"I Had No Idea What a Thrill It Would Be..."
An Interview With Shanna McNair

Photo by Nathan Eldridge.

Shanna McNair is the founder and editor-in-chief of The New Guard, Maine's only multi-genre independent literary review. Her publications this year include Maine Magazine, Naugatuck River Review and Fact-Simile. She was a Summer Literary Seminar 2010 fellowship recipient for work in both poetry and fiction. She is represented by Zero Gravity Management for her original screenplays. McNair is also an MFA candidate in Fiction at Stonecoast in Maine. 


Tell me what inspired the creation of The New Guard, and how your editorial team came together.

SM: I wanted to give something to writers, the new writer in particular. I wanted to offer support in some real way. As a writer, I know how hard it is to keep the discipline.  I also know that writers are more often than not underpaid and undervalued. So I decided to offer two contests with a substantial prize and publication and big-name judges. This looks good on any writer’s resume and could even help lead to a book deal. That we publish established writers alongside is just frosting on the cake, as are our special literary segments, like our letters segment called “Writers to Writers: Fan Letters to the Dead.” 

I also felt I could give something back to the literary community, since writing is my life’s focus. There was also a void to fill here in Maine: The New Guard is the first independent, multi-genre literary review in the state. That said, we accept national and international submissions.

The editors for the first edition were not a board of editors in the classic sense; rather they served as readers who weighed in on stories or poems. I chose reading editors who were very interested and had a lot of time and energy, and whose sense of writing I trusted. (TNG is an annual, and each year the editors will change so as to keep things fresh.) Everyone else on the team is Maine-based. The enthusiasm for TNG has been overwhelming and people have given generously of their time and energy. I couldn’t be more grateful.

When the whole process was over for TNG 2010, and I got to send out the two big prize checks to our prize-winning writers, I was deliriously happy and very, very proud. I imagined our two winners feeling that support that I had envisioned and had worked so hard to make happen. I can safely say that the entire TNG team felt heartened by that. We are a team of writers, and our motto “Writers for writers’ sake” is for real.

Finish this sentence: When I started The New Guard, I had absolutely no idea _____.

SM: When I started The New Guard, I had absolutely no idea what a thrill it would be or how much it would really cost.  

Describe The New Guard's process of evaluating submissions. How many people are involved in reading them?

SM: We are not a giant publishing house and have no interns or outside help, so editors actually read each manuscript. I think this is ideal for submitters because the work is regarded with the utmost respect and care. I would want an editor to read my work if I sent it out—we keep the writer in mind always. 

Because the term "experimental" is confusing to some when used in a literary sense, explain what you're looking for with experimental work.

SM: There are all kinds of literary experimentation. I wanted writers to feel free to find their own idea about experiment and so the submissions call is a bit broad on purpose so that TNG might encompasses all manner of experiment and play. I also wanted writers to find their own idea about what narrative (or tradition) so I juxtaposed the two: TNG is about the juxtaposition of narrative with experiment. We’re looking for a bold manuscript that is grounded in story; we want real substance and sense and a narrative that’s fresh and surprising.

In TNG 2010 there are poems and stories which play with topography and form. The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (Heather Slomski) is laid out like a play. Fish Story (Payne Ratner), uses no quotation marks and instead uses layout to convey the quotation. A few poems utilize no capitalization. There is also a fair amount of lyrical work in both genres, and as our poetry judge Donald Hall put it, “headlong” beginnings to many of the poems. If you pick up a copy of TNG online you might have the very best understanding of what we’re looking for. In general when submitting I think this is the best thing for writers to do: do research on where you’re submitting.

As both a publisher and a writer, what have you learned about “the other side of the process” that you didn't know before? Has editing and publishing changed the way you approach your own writing?

SM: I have done a bunch of editing before I took on TNG—I worked for years in journalism and was the arts editor for Village Soup, a local online and print news source, and edited my college journal out of University of Maine at Farmington. My family is full of writers and I had a good sense of each side of the process. That said, I guess I don’t sweat it as much if I don’t make the cut somewhere—because the final judgment on winners and finalists comes down to taste, which is of course subjective.
Will you be holding contests for your second issue as you did with the first? Are there any plans in the works for TNG 2011 that you'd like to share?

SM: We have two contests each year that offer a $1,000 prize each and publication to the winner: The Machigonne Fiction Contest and The Knightville Poetry Contest. (I should mention that “Machigonne” comes from the first name of Portland, ME, and “Knightville” is the community just over the bridge from Portland, where I live.) Selected finalists are also published. Judges (blind) last year were Donald Hall for the Knightville and Debra Spark for the Machigonne. Each year the judges will change. We are not presently offering open submissions.

Mostly, plans for TNG 2011 is top secret! But I can say that we will have another letters section, and some new nonfiction as well.
The current state of the economy has caused hardships for nearly everyone, including the publishing industry. How have the rules changed for publishers? What do you think writers need to do to get their work noticed, given the current environment?

SM: The publishing industry has certainly been hit very hard, and TNG is no exception. Publishers have had to cut corners on expenses—evidenced by lower print runs, changes in print quality, smaller distribution, etc. Perhaps the biggest change I’m seeing is that entry/reading fees are becoming the norm, especially with independent literary magazines. These fees help continue operation, but are honestly a drop in the bucket in today’s tough economy. Small presses and lit mags in print are a fortune to run. TNG is a work of passion, and I am not a trust-funder so mostly the funding is coming from a tight business model and donations, such as our successful Kickstarter campaign. Believe me, most—if not all—lit mags lose money in their first years.

Writers need to find their own voice and not follow fads. I’ve noticed a fad in fiction: a particular kind of front-loaded narrative, with tons of modifiers and adjectives—an academic tone that to me comes off self-congratulatory. In terms of poetry I’m finding a certain kind of mixed metaphor and a confused narrative. Readers want what’s inside the story or poem, not what’s on the surface. When I was in Ireland for a residency recently, the Irish author Claire Keegan said something like this—surely I’ll botch it but something like, “You don’t need to throw a bunch of style into your writing. Your style will come through anyway, so don’t worry about it. Focus on the story at hand and keep widening it out, little by little.”

In 2010, VIDA released data revealing that a number of major magazines tend to publish material authored by men far more frequently than women. Why do you think that is and what do you think could be done to change that?

SM: This is interesting to me given the fact that MFA programs are attended by more women than men, and since it’s a fact that more writing submissions come from women than men across the board. At TNG it’s about the quality of the work. As for me, I am a writer first. It’s not about gender or subject for me, it’s about craft. I hope to even the field by giving my all to writing and doing my best work as a writer and as a publisher. 
Who are some of your favorite authors and what do you enjoy about their work?

SM: Vladimir Nabokov, Early Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Dorothy Parker, Flannery O’Connor, Earnest Hemingway, Nami Mun, Jorge Luis Borges, William Faulkner, Kathy Acker, D.H. Lawrence, Richard Wright; Alden Nowlan, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Ai, Pablo Neruda, Tony Hoagland, Emily Dickinson…it goes on and on.

I like a spare and moving line, a sentence that isn’t overloaded with style. I prefer directness. I do not like obtuse writing: I shouldn’t have to bust out a decoder ring to understand what’s going on. In poetry, I look first at the line and then enjambment. Confidence in tone, naturalness, all these things make good writing as far as I can tell. Each of these writers created work that included the reader—I believe this inclusion is very important.


More information about The New Guard can be found online at the following places:

Website for The New Guard
on Facebook
interview at the AWP Conference in D.C. for Columbia College
TNG article in Obit Magazine
ABC Australia's live radio show, “The Book Show” interview on TNG
TNG is for sale in California at Skylight Books in Los Angeles  
TNG is also available locally in Maine and via our website on the “Orders” page
TNG merchandise

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