Talking with . . .

Jason Sanford

An interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I FIRST HEARD about storySouth and from Jason Sanford (Thailand 1994–96) over six years ago when he went online with his magazine. He has managed on his own, with a little help from his friends, to produce a first class Internet magazine. I finally got around to emailing Jason and getting his story. Here is one Peace Corps writer/editor who is making a difference. As Jason writes about storySouth, “online fads can’t help but fade away; great writing endures. storySouth is all about the writing.”

    Jason, where are you from in the south?
    I was born and raised in central Alabama near a small town called Wetumpka. I literally grew up at the end of a mile-long dirt road, surrounded by cotton fields and the deserted ruins of an old sharecropping farm. My brother and I constantly played in these falling-down houses and barns and I think that influenced my eventual course of study at Auburn University, which was anthropology with a specialization in archaeology.

    And then you joined the Peace Corps?
    Yes, I was a TEFL-crossover Volunteer in Thailand from 1994 to 96. I taught in a junior high school in the village of Sa Klee in central Thailand.
         Sa Klee was a fascinating village. Situated on a small river, the village was in a traditional rice farming area. However, because the village was only two hours from Bangkok and situated near a major highway, a number of extremely large factories had been built around the village. One shoe factory on the edge of Sa Klee employed over 15,000 workers, many of them immigrants from the poor Northeastern part of the country. So in this village you had two hundred year old teak houses standing a hundred yards from plywood and tin slums. Because of this cultural clash between new and old, the teachers at the school really worked hard to improve the well-being of everyone in the area. That’s where the crossover part of my title came in.

    Why would a kid from the rural south join the Peace Corps in the first place?
    I joined because I both wanted to help people and also see other parts of the world. My family really believes in service to both our country and humanity and I saw Peace Corps as a good way to do this.

    Okay, what happened to you after your tour?
    Well, I met my wife-to-be in Thailand — she was serving with the Peace Corps in the Northeastern region of the country — and after our service was up we moved to Minneapolis. There was a large RPCV Thailand community in the Twin Cities, so we knew something about the area. I eventually went to work as a senior editor at a publishing company in the area, where I edited anthologies of fiction and poetry for children (among other books).

    And that editing led to you starting storySouth?
    While I was working at this publishing company, I grew increasingly frustrated at how little control I had over what I published. Because the anthologies I edited had very specific guidelines and requirements, the works I helped select were in many ways extremely formulistic. I rejected dozens of quality stories and poems each week — writings that under other circumstances I would have jumped at publishing. The only solution I saw to this frustration was to create my own literary journal.
         However, I’d been in publishing enough to know how hard it is to launch a new print publication, and that’s without even considering the financial challenges. I decided that the way to go was to publish the journal exclusively online. I thought that an online journal that practiced professional-level editing would have a great chance at success. And because I was so far away from my home state of Alabama, I decided to focus on writings from the New South, which to me is a celebration of the immense changes the Southern United States have undergone in the last few decades. The Civil Rights Movement, the influx of new people to the region, the dying of agricultural traditions and the boom of industrialization — all are aspects of the New South.

    Do you see yourself then as a continuation of the Southern Agrarian movement of Allen Tate and other conservatives in the south who wanted to keep the south “old” as expressed in Tate’s book I’ll Take My Stand?
    Absolutely not. First off, I refuse to believe in any ideal utopian society having ever existed anywhere in the world, be it in the South, the North, or Shangri-La. There are no perfect societies except in people’s memories — and then the simple truth is that people aren’t remembering how life really used to be.
         Second, I find the Southern Agrarians to be massive hypocrites. Tate, for example, lived most of his life in the North, either in New York City or New Jersey, where he taught at Princeton University. The other Southern Agrarians fell along similar lines, and even when they didn’t they weren’t exactly spending their lives working under harsh agricultural conditions, as many people in the South did at the time. And that’s without even getting into that group’s backward views on race relations and equal rights. No, I don’t bemoan the loss of their version of traditional Southern culture, which was always more myth than truth. My South involves the Civil Rights Movement, the equality of all people, the influx of new ideas and ways, all of that mixed with a love for the best parts of Southern history and culture and an acknowledgment of the equally horrible parts.

    About your website. Have you published any RPCV writers on your site?
    Not to my knowledge, although we have published a large number of writers from around the world and have also honored RPCV writers in our annual Million Writers Award for best fiction. I should add, though, that storySouth is always open to Peace Corps writers. The same can also be said about the online publishing world. For example, ducts.org has published a number of great columns by Benjamin Malcolm, a Peace Corps Volunteer I served with in Thailand. And I just profiled on storySouth a new online journal called Our Stories which is edited and published by Alexis E. Santi, who served with the Peace Corps in Romania. There are so many RPCVs involved in online publishing that I couldn't begin to list them all — and that's without even mentioning all the Peace Corps bloggers or even your wonderful website.

    Have many of the people that you first published gone on to publish books?
    Yes, quite a few of the authors we’ve published have gone on to publish novels and short story collections, including Kat Meads, Krista McGruder, Greg Downs, and many more. In addition, quite a few writers we’ve published have later gone on to much bigger and better things. Perhaps the best example of this is poet Natasha Trethewey, a gifted poet we published back in our spring 2002 issue and who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.

    Is there a future for little magazines in print — or will they be online?
    Even though I deeply love paper magazines and journals, I’m afraid that the latter is the future as I see it. The simple fact is that publishing a printed literary journal is a no-win situation unless you have an incredibly rich uncle or university willing to continually bail you out. Most little magazines and journals have a distribution of less than a thousand copies. The average online journal like storySouth receives that many readers in a day or two. When you add in how expensive it is to print a publication, and the fact that brick and mortar bookstores rarely stock literary journals and magazines these days, then publishing online becomes a very appealing alternative to print.
         That said, I do believe the biggest literary journals and magazines will maintain a print presence. But those little magazines which are created merely for the love of writing — those will be increasingly seen online.

    Often I’m asked where people can read the writings of RPCVs I have interviewed. What would you suggest on your writings?
    Almost all of my writings are either on my website at www.jasonsanford.com or linked from that site. While I publish my stories and essays in a number of different places, I always try to keep my website up-to-date with links and material.

    What Peace Corps writers — and or books — have you read and liked?
    Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor has always stuck with me. I’m also a fan of a number of Paul Theroux’s books, although I wasn’t overly impressed with My Secret History, which focused on a slightly fictionalized version of his Peace Corps experience. I love the poetry of John Brandi and have also enjoyed some of Roland Merullo’s books. One short story collection which has long stuck in my mind is Maria Thomas’ Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, which I’m happy to note was rereleased by SoHo Press this year for the book’s twentieth anniversary.

    What advice would you give to a writer coming back from the Peace Corps and wanting to get published?
    Write. Read. Write even more. Be sure to submit your work because editors will never accept your writings if they remain hidden on your hard drive. I’d also suggest creating a website or blog. That’s how many new writers are gaining exposure.

    What’s next for Jason Sanford?
    One of my short stories will be published in an upcoming issue of Interzone, a top-notch science fiction magazine in England, and a few of my critical essays and reviews are due out soon in different magazines and journals. I’m also trying to wrap up a novel by the end of the year. In early 2008, I begin work on the fifth annual Million Writers Award, which is an award I run each year for the best short story published in an online magazine or journal.

    Thanks, Jason, for your time.
    Thank you, John.