Interview with Lisa Ko, Drunken Boat’s new Fiction Editor

I’m pretty excited that Lisa Ko is joining me as co-fiction editor at Drunken Boat, and that she agreed to a quick interview for the DB blog. Even though I’ve never met her in person, I could tell from Lisa’s website that we have some things in common and a lot to talk about. Besides our love of reading and writing fiction, we were both new wave girls of the eighties. And, I, too, am a “player of the long game” and “defender of the underdog” as Lisa describers herself on her website.

Lisa comes to DB already an accomplished writer and editor. She is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and will be published by Algonquin Books in 2017. Her fiction has appeared in Apogee Journal, Narrative, Copper Nickel, Storychord, One Teen Story, Brooklyn Review, and elsewhere.

A founding co-editor of Hyphen and a fiction editor at Drunken Boat, Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

Lisa, who is under deadline for final edits for her novel, was kind enough to answer my questions by email.

SB: First, welcome to Drunken Boat! I’m so excited to be working with you and am looking forward to big things. Could you tell me a bit about why you decided to apply for the position and your vision for DB fiction. In particular, what advice do you have to submitters and what will you be looking for in those submissions?

LK: Thank you, Sybil! I’m so excited to be working with you and to be a part of the amazing Drunken Boat team.

SLB: I love that shift from diversity to decolonization. I think that describes what we’re hoping to do.

LK: So when I saw that Drunken Boat, a journal I’ve admired for a long time, was looking for fiction editors, I jumped at the opportunity. I was drawn to the call for “artists with an agenda” to join the editorial staff, and felt an instant connection to the journal’s mission statement, that the idea of “literary merit” is a biased one; that aesthetics aren’t neutral. For me, fiction is always political. With submissions, I’m looking for work that is provocative, engaging, and interesting. I love a good story, but I’ll also be reading with an eye outside of pre-established rules or credentials. My advice to writers is just to submit!

SLB: I agree — just submit. I’m still surprised by how much pushback there is to the statements that aesthetics aren’t neutral and that fiction is always political. These to me are pretty obvious statements, but not all editors and writers think so.

Around the time you became DB Fiction Editor, you also learned that you won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction for The Leavers, which will be published by Algonquin Books. Could you tell us the story behind writing the novel and the process of getting it published?

LK: I was inspired to write The Leavers by real-life stories of immigration, detention, and transnational adoption. I started writing the novel in 2009. In 2014, I deleted over a year’s worth of work (which was about as fun as it sounds). But I still believed in the story and rewrote the novel in the past two years.

Although it’s taken me seven years to finish writing the novel, the actual path to publication happened very fast. I submitted a draft last October to the PEN/Bellwether Award on a whim, then promptly forgot about it and spent six months doing more edits. So I was completely taken by surprise when I received a phone call from Barbara Kingsolver — who established and funds the award — on February 29, telling me I’d won! I was in shock for days. The award comes with a book deal from Algonquin Books, and I’m currently doing final edits so it can be ready for a spring 2017 publication.

SLB: Congratulations! As someone who has written about expatriates and transnational adoption, I’m really looking forward to reading your novel.

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I’m really looking forward to reading The Leavers when it comes out in 2017 —

I think some emerging writers are surprised by how long it can take to write a novel, and how long the path to publication (if it happens) can take. Your story is also an important (if painful) reminder that revising a novel sometimes means tossing out your draft and starting over.

Recently you received some other great news — that your story “Pat + Sam,” published in Copper Nickel, was selected by Junot Diaz to appear in Best American Short Stories 2016. You mentioned on Facebook that the story had been rejected 20+ times before being picked up by Copper Nickel. How does that experience influence your attitude toward writing and publishing both as a writer and, now, as DB fiction editor?

LK: I’ve worked as a fiction reader for literary magazines and one thing that has stuck with me is how subjective the process of accepting — or rejecting — a piece is. I have a low-expectations attitude when it comes to submitting my own work. All it takes is reaching the right reader or editor at the right time. It’s a strategy that makes it easier for me to keep submitting in the face of lots of rejection. A few years ago, I decided I would make it my goal to get 50 writing-related rejections each year. I didn’t nearly hit my goal of 50 submissions that first year, but I did submit more than I’d ever submitted before, and that meant I got more rejections than ever before — and also, more acceptances.

SLB: I love this idea of setting a rejection goal rather than an acceptance goal. To get 50 rejections means you are sending your work out, which also increases your opportunities for acceptance. Both of your recent successes are great reminders that it’s important to be at peace with the process — whether it is throwing out a draft or receiving rejections, and that the process can lead to good things.

I hope more writers will set their own rejection goals as a way to increase their submissions and that one of those places they will submit to is Drunken Boat.

Thanks Lisa!