When planning this collection of Senior Editor interviews—designed to celebrate Cleaver reaching the 5 year milestone and our 20th issue—I was excited to be the one to interview Christina Larocco, Nonfiction Editor. She and I joined Cleaver at the same time. We share the same fierce love for and dedication to Cleaver. And, ever since I too took on a Senior Editor role, she has been my partner in crime. If I need a second pair of eyes for a Life As Activism piece, she’s there. If I need comprehensive edits to send to a new or emerging author, she’s on it. Regardless of the time of day, Christina is there should I or another editor have a need. She, like the other editors on our team, truly deserves this spotlight.
Like our regular correspondence, this interview too was completed by email.
Rosie Huf: When did you start working with Cleaver Magazine?
Christina Larocco: I started working with Cleaver in January 2016.
R: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey from Reader to Prose Editor?
C: I just insinuated myself everywhere! I grew up in the Philadelphia area, but I lived in Washington, DC, for ten years before moving back in 2015. I wanted to get involved in the arts and culture scene here, and I loved the work Cleaver was publishing. Once I accumulated some publishing credits, I cold-emailed Karen and asked if there was anything I could do to help. She invited me to start reading, and I’ve been doing so ever since. I’m addicted to editing. I do it all day at work and then come home and just want to do more. I spent as much time on Cleaver as I could. There was never an official moment when I was “promoted,” but at some point Karen started asking for my opinions and feedback more. That is probably when I became an editor.
R: What do you appreciate most about your experience with Cleaver Magazine? How has this experience influenced other aspects of your life and career?
C: I love learning from other editors. I think I’m a good editor, but I’m always interested to see how people from different backgrounds—especially those who come from more traditional literary backgrounds—respond to the same piece.
In terms of my career, I could probably find remunerative labor in a number of different places—I could go into public history, or I could get back into teaching. But the writing and publishing world is what I love, and working with Cleaver has reinforced my conviction that this is where I want to be.
R: Since joining the Cleaver team, is there a piece of fiction or nonfiction that has stuck with you since first reading it? If yes, why?
C: Definitely. One of my favorites from the past year is Sara Schuster’s essay, “My Father’s Hair.” It’s a beautiful look at a father-daughter relationship complicated by the father’s age and health problems.
R: Although you read for Cleaver’s fiction and nonfiction sections, your preference is nonfiction. You also have several externally-published nonfiction pieces, and you are Editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. What first drew you to this genre? What captivates you most by it?
C: I think creative nonfiction is a natural fit for academics (I’m a history PhD). I think there are a lot of us who burned out on academia for one reason or another and now work in this genre. I’m not interested in academic writing at the moment, but I use my scholarly background in all of my work, and I know others do the same. Creative nonfiction lets us use our research and analytical skills, but it’s so much more freewheeling. You don’t have to connect the dots or advance a cohesive argument. You don’t need to provide the answers.
In To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate says that reading an essay is like watching a mind at work. I love that. Creative nonfiction is a genre that exposes the thought process itself—probably another reason it’s appealing to academics, because we love to think about thinking. For me, the bigger challenge has feeling comfortable talking about myself.
I’ve found myself even more drawn to creative nonfiction since the election. For a long time, I couldn’t read fiction at all. It made me feel strangely lonely. I know that sounds counterintuitive—shouldn’t fiction have provided more comfort at that point than nonfiction? I mostly read essays and memoirs, not journalism or purely informative nonfiction. It wasn’t about becoming a better or more-informed citizen. Eventually I figured out that what I needed was the acknowledgment of the author’s presence that is central to so much creative nonfiction. Being kept company by the authors I was reading made me feel less alone. It felt like a small way of weaving the social fabric back together.
R: How do your experiences editing for a literary magazine and a history magazine converge as well as diverge? Does one experience inform the other?
C: First of all, being both a writer and an editor is so great, and I encourage everyone to do it if they have the opportunity. Each enhances the other from a craft perspective, but working behind the scenes has also made me realize how not personal the inevitable rejections are.
PMHB is a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, but the editing process is more similar than it is different. Where scholarly and literary journals diverge most visibly is in timeline to publication and the scale of feedback and revision. It takes a long time for potential authors to receive any sort of response, and even longer for an acceptance. I’m the first reader for all submissions, and then, if I think a piece has potential, I send it out to peer reviewers. Once they respond, I decide whether to accept, decline, or request revisions. Initial submissions are almost never accepted. In best case scenarios, the author revises and resubmits. Then the whole process starts over again.
The flipside to all of this waiting is that authors get lots of feedback—usually a few pages from each reviewer and a long letter from me. This arrangement is impossible at a literary journal that receives thousands of submissions per year, and I do have mixed feelings about simultaneous submissions. When I’m reading for Cleaver and I think it would help the author, I try to include a sentence or two suggesting ways to strengthen the piece.
R: What constitutes as a successful nonfiction submission?
C: A successful nonfiction submission needs to be more than a diary entry. I strongly support personal writing and admire those who can do so freely, but to be a successful piece of writing, it needs to provide something for the reader, not just catharsis for the author.
R: Which authors inspire you most as a reader, an editor, and a writer?
C: I’m not sure I can separate authors into those categories, though I certainly admire writers for different reasons. Leslie Jamison is the most obvious answer: no one combines memoir and erudition like she does. I read The Empathy Exams when I was just starting to get back into creative writing, and I didn’t realize until I reread it recently how fundamentally it has informed my thinking about what an essay is. I also admire writers like Anne Helen Petersen and Rebecca Schuman, not only because they are smart and creative but also because they found ways to reorient their careers after leaving academia.
Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life and John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File inspired my current project. Li calls her book a collection of essays, not a memoir, but I was intrigued by how she extends the interwoven nature of an essay into a longer form (Maggie Nelson and Rebecca Solnit do this so well, too). Writing about Emmett Till and his father, Wideman interrogates the kinds of truth we can and cannot glean from archival sources, which I’m also grappling with at the moment. Finally, as a historian, I so envy Jill Lepore’s ability to weave together a narrative.
R: You are the Prose Editor for Cleaver’s Life As Activism feature. Why is this feature so important to you? How important would you say it is that literature address social issues and affect social change?
C: Last year, an image of a protestor carrying a sign that read “So bad, even introverts are here” went viral. I really related to that. I’ve been to my share of protests, and I think it’s important to be a body on the street and show, in a really visible way, how many people refuse to go along with the current administration. It’s a challenge for me to get out there, though. I know this is my weakness to work on, but in the meantime I try to respond to politics with the tools that I have. Writing is one; providing a platform for other writers is another.
The explicitly political work that Life as Activism publishes is crucial. I’d argue, however, that all of the work Cleaver publishes is political. Literature challenges the idea that people have value only to the extent to which their skills can be monetized, and in that way it resists the dominant culture.
R: What personal projects are you working on currently?
C: I’m currently in the very early stages of a project about the Philadelphia-area abolitionist and feminist Martha Schofield, who is best known for founding a school for freed people in South Carolina during Reconstruction. I’m calling it a “biography in essays,” but I’m really using her as a jumping-off point to talk about the challenges of writing about women in history, the extent to which archives tell the truth, and what it feels like to live through twenty-first century crises.
R: What do you do for fun? What is your idea of a perfect day? How do you relax? How do you develop your craft?
C: I’ll answer the last question first. Lately I’ve been relying a lot on two writing strategies: free writing to generate ideas and reverse outlining to revise, both on paper. I didn’t grow up writing on the computer, and I still feel like I can’t really see a project until I have it in front of me in hard copy. I do also read a lot, both to stay current in the field and learn from other writers and for enjoyment.
The one activity I really splurge on is theater—I’m going to see Hamilton (finally!) and Angels in America in a few weeks! Philadelphia has great theater, too, and I try to see as much as I can. It’s more money than I should really spend, but it’s so important to me, and I’m willing to keep it pretty simple the rest of the time. I love to fawn over my cats, play board games, and eat pizza, and I’ll geek out over tennis, Star Trek, or the 1960s any day of the week.
R: What are your hopes for the future of Cleaver Magazine?
C: Pieces by emerging writers are often among our most exciting submissions, and I hope we continue to publish these authors regularly. I would also love for us to receive more submissions from people who aren’t white men. The discrepancies on our Submittable page surprised me when I started reading, though they shouldn’t have. It can be disheartening, because a lot of these submissions have a similar aesthetic with similar topics and themes.
Rosie Huf is the Senior Editor of Cleaver Magazine’s Life As Activism feature and manages the Editors’ Blog. She received her Master of Liberal Studies degree from Arizona State University, the concentration in Nonfiction and Publishing. Most recently, she had a nonfiction piece published in Sundog Lit. Her book reviews and interviews can be found in Cleaver Magazine and Superstition Review.