Earlier this year, if there even was a 2020 before the pandemic, Melissa Scholes Young invited some of the Little Patuxent Review editors to American University to speak to the students in her Literary Editing & Publishing class. Talking with Melissa after the class, I learned that not only was she the editor of an upcoming anthology of DC women’s voices, Furious Gravity, but that her students were helping to plan and run the anthology’s launch. Things have certainly changed since then, but the voices in the anthology are as urgent as ever. Melissa was kind enough to catch me up on everything that’s happened with the book and her class since we met.
Q: This is the second volume of the Grace and Gravity series that you’ve edited. How did you get involved with the project? What drew you to it?
A: When I moved to DC a decade ago, I met Richard Peabody, the founder of the series, and he asked me to submit a story for Abundant Grace. A year later he was in my living room for an Art in Dark Times reading and he said that he was ready to pass on the editorial reigns. I asked for the honor and Richard obliged. I’d say it was a matter of luck, timing, and guts.
The theme of this volume is fury, which feels even more prescient to me now than it did even two months ago. How did you choose that focus?
I think the themes choose us, maybe. Each book has either “grace” or “gravity” in the title. Grace in Darkness felt urgent in 2018 as a reaction to our political landscape. Much of what I’ve learned in the darkness made me furious and grateful. I’m also interested in how anger works as fuel and the gravity of how it pulls us together and further divides. Furious Gravity was timely in 2019 when we put out our call for submissions, but it seems like a life line now.
What were your goals in bringing together the voices of these 50 women?
My goals are always to listen, to create community, and to shine a light on women’s voices. It’s a stunning collection of emerging writers and new work from established ones. DC is rich in literary talent and I’m honored to play a role in sharing it.
How do you go about selecting which pieces will make it into the anthology? Was there anything in particular that you were looking for in terms of content, representation, etc.?
Our nonfiction editor, Wendy Besel Hahn, and I read every single submission. We talk about them in batches and for hours. We try to balance nonfiction and fiction, but really, we’re looking for a story that burns, surprises us, and leaves us changed. Our goal is diversity of content and identity. It matters to me that this book reflects our community.
What is the importance of this anthology in our particular cultural, historical, and political moment?
Writers have their ears to the ground. We often hear cultural rumblings before they emerge. Our political moment is both unprecedented in our time and clearly marked in history. The voices in this anthology raise questions and shout about injustices. We don’t have all the answers but we have something to say.
I know that plans have changed a bit, but your students have been a big part of planning the anthology’s launch. Can you talk about their involvement?
My students at American University are amazing. I’m honored to be their teacher. I learn from them, too. We spend the semester studying the industry and then the last three weeks of the semester become a literary learning lab. They help make decisions on everything from cover design to fonts. Our copyeditor, Nita Congress, joins us virtually. Then we break into launch committees: promotion, social media, book trailer, website, and book launch. We decide each committees’ goals and begin the work. My students bring all their knowledge, creativity, and pluck. They interview the authors and write spotlights. The plan the launch. They write articles and press releases and pitch local media. I’m in awe of them. Connecting DC students with DC authors and building this literary community is such satisfying work.
We don’t have all the answers but we have something to say.
Steven Leyva and I were lucky enough to come and speak to the students in your Literary Editing & Publishing class earlier this year about LPR. I think people will be excited to know that there is interest in literary journals. What inspired you to start that class, and what do you hope students take away from it?
I’m a HUGE fan of LPR, so thank you to you, Holly, and to Steven for visiting American University. My students learned so much about editing and publishing by reading LPR and having you both visit our class. I was inspired to teach and to design the class to share everything I’ve learned about the industry the hard way. Literary Editing & Publishing is the class I wish I’d had during my MFA days.
I try to demystify the writing process. We talk about careers in editing, the query process, book proposals, pitches, literary agents, and the value of literary journals. We read three to four DC journals and invite those editors into our learning lab. I believe students learn best when doing, so they get hands-on practice in branding, promotion, marketing, website development, and book launches. My students are incredibly creative and talented. Launching Furious Gravity during a pandemic has also helped them become adaptable in thinking about how to reach readers.
And last but not least, where can people find Furious Gravity? How about your own work?
Thank you for asking! Furious Gravity is available only from Politics & Prose. You can read all about our book launch, local media, contributors, and press at the website my students created.
Melissa Scholes Young is the author of the novel Flood, winner of the Literary Fiction Category for the 2017 Best Book Award from American Book Fest. She published Guinea Pig, a chapbook of fiction, in 2018 with Voiceover Press. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poet Lore, and Poets & Writers. She’s a contributing editor for Fiction Writers Review and editor of two volumes of DC Women Writers: Grace in Darkness (2018) and Furious Gravity (2020). Scholes Young was named a Bread Loaf Camargo Fellow and a Quarry Farm Fellow at the Center for Mark Twain Studies. She is an associate professor in the Department of Literature at American University in Washington, DC.