Sonder Speaks | Sapling Interviews Our Own Elena Stiehler

I'm so pleased to share this interview I did for Black Lawrence Press's small press newsletter, Sapling, a few weeks back. A special thank you to Yvonne Garrett for reaching out and featuring us in Sapling #430. I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed giving it. And if you're curious about Sapling -- an incredible supporter of the small press world and excellent resource for writers and fellow publishers -- then follow this link to learn more:

Reproduced from Sapling #430

Sapling: What should people know who may not be familiar with The Sonder Review?

Elena Stiehler: Well, we are a literary review publishing biannually and were founded in 2014. We publish short fiction and narrative nonfiction as well as artwork. I would say our mission is to publish extraordinary works, crafted precisely, which awaken something new inside of us, some latent, visceral longing; writing which fills us with hunger. Our issues are all free to read online and our ninth issue is coming out at the end of February! Oh, and our small press imprint, Sonder Press, launched last year with debut titles forthcoming this spring and summer. Really, we are all about the relationship forged between author and editor and are committed to publishing the best version of each piece we select.

Sapling: How did your name come about?

ES: Rather serendipitously. Ever since I was a child I’ve had this fascination with other lives – I remember sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car and watching as each separate existence passed by my window and struggling to wrap my brain around the concept that just as I was experiencing them as a snippet of time in my own life, just brushing past, their own lives were also unfolding, all at the same time as mine yet wholly apart – and this feeling is something which has always stuck with me. So when I decided I wanted to begin a literary review, I began to poke around at what was out there trying to figure out what I might want to call it. I came across John Koenig’s, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, in a moment of procrastination and found the word ‘sonder’ – it was like a hammer dropping in my chest, like, this is it, this is what I’ve always felt but could never name. This is why I wanted to start this review. And so it became not only our namesake, but also our guiding principle.

Sapling: What do you pay close attention to when reading submissions? Any deal breakers?

ES: For me every piece we select comes down to two things: craft and vision. When I began Sonder it was always with the intent to publish great writing, first and foremost. I want a piece where each word matters, and is intentional, and great care is taken to create fresh, resonant imagery. In my own writing I’m incredibly deliberate when it comes to how the prose is sculpted – I read everything aloud – and I would say I’m the same when it comes to being an editor. There needs to be a certain degree of thoughtfulness and novelty, in both the craft and the content of the piece. I’m never looking for anything particularly specific in terms of content, although if I feel like I’ve read it before, I’m generally not interested in reading it again. But by the end of the piece, whether it is 1000 or 5000 words, I want to feel like something inside me has altered. I want to be moved; I want that throb in my gut. As for deal breakers I would say my top five are vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake; pieces that are over 90% dialogue; caricature and stereotype; poorly done dialect; and pieces which fail to demonstrate any ultimate growth or realization.

Sapling: Where do you imagine The Sonder Review to be headed over the next couple years? What’s on the horizon?

ES: I imagine our presence expanding – really embracing social media and ramping up the content on our blog, increasing our author interviews and reviews, maybe an annual contest or two – just generally getting ourselves out there more, and creating more connections, with authors and other publications alike. I think we have something special to say and to offer people with the work we’ve put out, and continue to put out. I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished, so I’d like to keep it going – and growing!

Sapling: As an editor, what is the hardest part of your job? The best part?

ES: I think the hardest part is trusting in myself as an editor and trusting in my vision for the review. It’s very easy to doubt yourself, whether it’s the last round of edits you sent out, or the latest piece you rejected. When it came to building Sonder, I very much figured things out as I went along – I’m still figuring things out, even now! – and while I’m much more confident than I was, and we’ve had great responses to the work we’ve put out, it can be nerve-wracking striving to maintain the standard of work we’ve been privileged enough to publish.

The best part is by far the actual editing. I began Sonder because I love working as an editor – taking a piece and finding those places where it can get even better, where without that collaborative effort the piece might not have been as strong or effective. I find that push and pull of the editorial process, the time spent truly honing an already astonishing piece, and the relationship I develop with each author, to be the most rewarding part of what I do. I’m deeply invested in each piece we publish and each issue we put out and I’m always a bit chuffed, when all the edits are settled and the issue is pulled together, at the quality of each piece and what can be accomplished working in tandem. I’ve always felt that great writing, great art, is achieved collectively and I’m excited every day that I get to be a part of that. And I love curating the issues themselves – the design and overall flow of the pieces and artwork – creation, I think, is always a very rewarding experience.

Sapling: If you were stranded on a desert island for a week with only three books which books would you want to have with you?

ES: Heirlooms by Rachel Hall because it is such a thoughtful, delicately crafted work and I honestly believe everyone should read it, The Physics of Imaginary Objects by Tina May Hall because it taught me the power of language and freedom of form, and The Once and Future King by T.H. White because it was the shaping of my childhood.

Sapling: Just for fun (because we like fun and the number three) if The Sonder Review was a person what three things would it be thinking about obsessively?

ES: Word choice, paper stock, and the necessity of flexible deadlines.

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