In her 3 years at Cleaver, Fiction Editor K.C. Mead-Brewer has brought a staunch eye and a full heart to further developing what makes a story Cleaver worthy. Her own work—a wonderful meld of surrealism, sci-fi, horror, and anything else that combines oblivion with a sense of inevitable change—has appeared in Carve Magazine, Hobart, and beyond. During our email interview, I was thrilled to hear more about KC’s empathetic take on reading, writing and everything in between.
August Thompson: How long have you been at Cleaver?
K.C. Mead-Brewer: I’ve been with Cleaver since February of 2015.
A: How has the magazine, and your role at the magazine, changed since you started?
K.C.: Since I’ve been at Cleaver, I’ve been proud to see the magazine grow its readership, gain prestige as a reviewer of literary translations, and launch its Life as Activism series. It’s a publication that’s not simply putting out issues; it’s constantly looking for ways to expand, be enlivened, and improve. My very first readership position was with Strange Horizons. It was thrilling getting to work with such a beloved magazine, but I eventually switched to read for Cleaver instead because they provided me a bit more opportunity to move and grow my position. Within a couple issues of reading and editorial work, I found my stride with Cleaver and its endlessly generous and talented team. I now not only read and copy-edit for Cleaver, but also write book reviews, interview authors, and offer developmental edits as needed.
A: Favorite piece to date?
K.C.: I don’t know that I could pick a favorite, but three short stories that continue to stick to my ribs are Melissa Goode’s “The Whole Damn Lovely Thing,” April Vázquez’s “Scapegoats,” and Emily Livingstone’s “The Townspeople.”
A: What are you working on now? What have you published recently?
K.C.: I’m currently working on a horror novel—pregnancy horror to be specific—which is a fun (read: frightening and stressful) change from the flash stories I’ve been publishing recently. I just had a story come out with The Cafe Irreal, called “The Autumn Fuss,” and another with matchbook, called “The Joke.”
A: When reading, what’s something that you love to see in a story? Something that frustrates you?
K.C.: I love when stories keep me on edge. I don’t mean that I prefer them to be super tense, scary, or action-packed. I mean when an author keeps absolute control of every line, each one creating some new bolt of energy. Something that makes me feel something without giving too much away or being too flashy. Something that makes me lean in. One of my favorite first lines is from Aimee Bender’s short fiction “Quiet Please,” which reads, “It is quiet in the rest of the library.” In some ways, this line is so simple it’s almost forgettable. But, this is also part of its charm, its playfulness. There’s a certain promise to the inclusion of “the rest of”; it isn’t quiet in the library. It’s quiet in part of the library, and already I’m hooked; eager to know what noises are being made in what part of this library. The amount of control displayed and anticipation created in this first line makes me trust this author right away. I know this story isn’t going to disappoint.
Something that frustrates me to see in story submissions is laziness. I want to always and only read beautiful, unexpected, transporting stories; but, even when a story doesn’t live up to these hopes, I don’t feel frustrated or disappointed, so long as it’s clear that the author is striving toward these things with enthusiasm and earnestness. When this striving isn’t clear, when laziness creeps in, it’s hard not to feel a bit betrayed and indignant on the story’s behalf. Laziness can come in many forms: racism, sexism, and other thoughtless moments of hate; persistent grammar or formatting issues; clichéd phrasing; throwaway characters; prioritizing cleverness over beauty, etc. These things, in my mind, are all avoidable, especially if you sincerely ache for your story to be all it can.
A: What are 5-7 books you’ve recently fallen in love with?
K.C.: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Booked by Leandra Vane. Trash by Dorothy Allison. [m]otherhood by Anna Lea Jancewicz. And Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez.
A: How does your own writing impact your work as an editor and reader? How does editing and reading impact your own writing?
K.C.: My writing makes me a much more empathetic editor and reader than I would be otherwise. It keeps me grounded in the knowledge that writing is an exceptionally maddening, personal, and taxing endeavor. My own struggles with writing also make me even more appreciative of authors who experiment and achieve things that I’ve not yet braved myself.
As for the vice versa, being an editor and reader helps me tremendously by keeping me engaged with emerging authors, giving me room to learn from their mistakes and successes. It’s happened more than once that, while drafting a critique letter to an author, I realized how one of my own projects could benefit from the advice I was offering. More than all of this, though, working with other authors and editors fills me with energy. Working with other authors, editors, and readers reminds me that writing is, at its heart, a collaborative craft. Stories aren’t truly complete until they’re read and shared.
A: How would you like to see Cleaver grow in the near future?
K.C.: I would love for Cleaver to receive even more submissions on a regular basis. I so admire the wild variety of stories, poems, and essays we currently see, but I’m always greedy for more. Send us your surreal and your magical! Your weird and your experimental! Send us terror and rage and exquisite gentleness.
A: What are some things you’ve learned from reviewing unexpected texts and interviewing authors for Cleaver?
K.C.: A) Reviewing and interviewing are much more challenging than I’d originally imagined.
B) You don’t need an MFA to be a thoughtful, successful author with a strong community.
C) Reading translations is a capital-M Must.
D) Treasure the opportunity to engage with other authors, but don’t take all their advice.
E) Jealousy gets you nowhere.
F) Perfectionism is an excuse.
G) Obsession is key.
H) So is empathy.
A: What do you set out to accomplish in your writing, if anything? Is there a process that lets you accomplish what you set out to accomplish, or does your technique change based on the piece?
K.C.: All I ever want to accomplish in my writing is a beautiful story, even if it’s sad, frightening, or weird. My basic “process”—if you can call it that—is to start each day by re-reading something I admire and then reading something new. From this foundation, I begin writing long-hand on whatever question is bothering me at the moment, combined with whatever elements I’ve assembled—a memory, a character, an object, an animal, a ghost, etc. Once I’ve built up some momentum, once I spy an actual story emerging, I’ll switch to typing on the computer. I do my best to resist the urge to edit as I go. Writing long-hand helps with this. Once I’ve reached “the end” of my rough draft, the real writing begins. For me, editing is where all real beauty in a story is unearthed. Of course, I’m now learning the hard way that my flash and short story writing methods don’t always translate well to novel writing and editing.
A: Let’s talk about variety at Cleaver a bit. Though you work in fiction, how does Cleaver’s unique ecosystem (fiction, flash, poetry, life as activism, reviews, etc.) influence your work?
K.C.: Cleaver’s dedication to showcasing diverse genres, as well as its eagerness to try new things, such as the burgeoning Life as Activism series, is a large part of why I was so eager to work for the magazine in the first place. There’s nothing quite like the exuberance of a journal that works to celebrate writing in all its forms: CNF, short stories, flash, book reviews, memoir, art writing, collaboration, advice columns, etc.
For years now, one of my favorite anthologies has been Anti-Story: An Anthology of Experimental Fiction, edited by Philip Stevick. This is, in part, because of the sheer wildness and variety careering between its pages. It fills me with the same kind of inventive, joyous energy that I now also find through Cleaver.
A: Giving writing advice is a nebulous and often quixotic affair, but is there advice you’d give to people submitting to Cleaver?
K.C.: If nothing else, be earnest.
A: Tell me about upcoming projects or work you’re excited about, as well as any past publications you’d like to shout-out, Cleaver and beyond.
K.C.: I’ve just finished writing a review of Anna Lea Jancewicz’s upcoming story collection, [m]otherhood, for Cleaver and, to sum up said review: read this collection. Ghosts, golem babies, demons, humor, pain, gentleness, rats, devourings, beauty, beauty, beauty. I’m also particularly excited about Ryan Hampton’s upcoming sucker-punch, American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis – and How to End It.
August Thompson has worked as an editor and writer since graduating from NYU in 2013. When he’s not working on fiction or watching the Boston Celtics, you can usually find him at the movies.