Author Q&A: Nancy Hightower

Nancy Hightower has published short fiction and poetry in journals such as storySouth, Sundog Lit, Gargoyle, Literary Orphans, and Word Riot. Her poetry collection The Acolyte has been nominated for an Elgin award by the Science Fiction Poetry Association and Kinds of Leaving, her short story collection, was shortlisted for the Flann O’Brien Award for Innovative Fiction in 2014. Currently, she cohosts the live literary journal Liars’ League NYC with Andrew Lloyd Jones, and is working on a book about digital fictions with Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky).

TBL Author Q&A Series: Nancy Hightower

This is the first in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? And, given all the difficulties of breaking into the market, what lead you to embark on writing as a career?

I see my writing working in tandem with my teaching, so my writing career began a little in grad school. I taught comp classes and then wrote poems and stories that were workshopped in my own class. I was late getting on the creative writing track for my PhD studies. For most of my graduate life, I studied Henry James. But I had secretly been writing a memoir of growing up in the evangelical South, and once an agent said she was interested in seeing the manuscript, I switched over. I took some great classes with Rikki Ducornet and Brian Kiteley at DU, but the market was super closed off in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and I remember how labor intensive it was to mail out submissions with a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelop) if you wanted a reply.

Then the Internet happened. Then online journals happened. And my writing life started back up. Suddenly there were journals that wanted my kind of writing (a bit dark and surreal). And all it takes is one acceptance to give you strength to face another fifty rejections. Once that engine starts, you just have to keep it going.

You have perspective on the writing process both as a writer and as a book reviewer. Has your experience as a reviewer in any way altered the way you go about your writing or the way you view your writing? Since you’ve been writing and reviewing, what sorts of changes and evolutions have you seen in the publishing industry?

I learned the value of a good publicist—they work tirelessly to get ARCs to reviewers, then a finished copy. Then they follow up to make sure you received the finished copy. Having a good publicist in your corner can really, really help. Getting your book reviewed before it comes out can help—not only do readers look at them, but so do reviewers! I am always reading what Publishers Weekly or Kirkus is reviewing.

But also, it helps for the author to be out there on social media, to get their name out there. I know some authors will disagree with me on this point. Some hate social media and see it as a distraction from their real writing. But I think if you want to sell a book, publishers are looking for authors who already have a platform. It makes everyone’s jobs that must easier, and their publicity can go further if you’ve done a little of the work, too.

Who/what are your greatest literary influences? Have you found that these have changed throughout your career?

That is such a hard question to answer. I grew up reading Madeleine L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R Tolkien, but then in college switched over to Louise Erdrich, Denise Levertov, and Nikki Giovanni (I still have my college copy of Those Who Ride the Night Winds). The work I kept coming back to as I wrote The Acolyte was Anne Sexton’s Transformations. Now I read the work of contemporary poets such as Kelly Cressio-Moeller and Sally Rosen Kindred.

Do you tend to be most interested in formal innovation, innovative subject matter, or some combination of both? How do you make your formal decisions as you write?

I tend to gravitate to innovative subject matter. For The Acolyte I did a lot of research with the biblical stories and cross referenced them and researched them in scholarly articles. I saw these poems as stories, so they have more narrative to them than most poems, but they are also sparser and shorter, because of focus.

Have there been any particular experiences that helped you overcome the hurdles of establishing yourself as a professional writer?

I’m not even sure I see myself as a “professional” writer. I’m a writer with a couple of books, and a college teacher, and often those two identities have a bit of a civil war when I really think about it. I would say going to writing conferences and hearing how established authors didn’t sell their first, or second or sometimes even third novel, that it was their fourth or fifth novel that sold–that helped a great deal. It let me see that writing is a long game. You start when you can but you put in five, ten, twenty years of practice before that contract comes. You build your fan base slowly. There is no “overnight sensation.” That writer is a myth. Learning that helped a great deal.

What are your current writing interests? Where do you see your next projects taking you?

I have just revised a short fiction collection which I’ll be sending to publishers in October, so we’ll see where that takes me.

I have an academic book with Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) about the future of storytelling and the digital arts. It’s going to be a great book with about 27 artists, authors, academics, interactive documentary makers, and journalists all talking about how they see the evolution of narrative. We’ll have an interactive website to go along with the book.

I want to start work on an kind of sequel to The Acolyte. I’ve already sketched out the table of contents; I just need to write the poems.