Emily Louise Smith directs The Publishing Laboratory at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and teaches courses on the culture and commerce of publishing. In 2009 she founded the literary imprint Lookout Books and now serves as publisher for both the press and its sister magazine, Ecotone. Under her guidance, Lookout titles have garnered accolades including the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Paterson Fiction Prize and have been named finalists for the National Book Award and The Story Prize, among others. Her poems appear in Best New Poets, the Southern Review, New South, and Smartish Pace; and her honors include fellowships from the Studios of Key West, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Hambidge, as well as a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize. Recently she was named Woman of Achievement in the Arts and UNCW Lecturer of the Year.
At the North Carolina Writers' Network 2013 Fall Conference, Emily will sit on Saturday's "Brilliant at Breakfast Panel Discussion" titled "How to Work with a Publisher (So They Want to Work with You)" along with Anna Lena Phillips and Beth Staples. She will also sit on Sunday's panel, "Agents and Editors," along with Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management, Paul Lucas of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, and Christine Norris of Press 53.
What are you reading right now?
I always have several books going at once. For my book club, I’m reading Karen Joy Fowler’s lovely We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; to satisfy my immense curiosity about the inner sanctum of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House; and in poetry, I’m reading North Carolina poet Rose McLarney’s The Always Broken Plates of Mountains and Maurice Manning’s latest, The Gone and the Going Away. Those, and a never-ending pile of Ecotone and Lookout submissions.
If you could have a torrid but guilt-free affair with a fictional character, who would it be?
What aspect of craft do you feel you handle especially well, or is especially important to you?
This isn’t craft exactly, but in terms of publishing, I seem to have a knack for crafting the story behind a book or author and pitching it successfully. Perhaps a holdover from my brief stint in advertising, I’m good at identifying a book’s target audience, as well as niche markets. And I’m absolutely devoted to book design and believe that readers naturally associate the well-written and well-designed book.
Any memorable rejections?
I try not to dwell on rejections, but there’s one acceptance I’ll never forget. The late Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Review, always called writers to accept new work. I was in a meeting and couldn’t answer, but I saved her warm, generous message until my cell phone carrier eventually erased it. She’ll never know how that call buoyed me as both a poet and publisher.
Do you own an electronic reading device?
I own an iPad, but I don’t read books on it.
What's one thing that bugs you more than anything else when you see it in a piece of writing?
More than one exclamation point or question mark, though I could make a case for the return of the interrobang.
Do you steal pens from hotels?
Hotels, restaurants, students who ask me to sign permission forms. Place a pen within six inches of my hand, and it will somehow make its way into my bag or pocket.
If you could be a different author, living or dead, who would you be?
C. D. Wright, Jack Gilbert, or W. S. Merwin; though different stylistically, the way those poets see and sing the world—and their brokenness—humbles and inspires me. Theirs are the poems I return to again and again.
Do you write to discover, or do you write point-to-point (for example, from an outline)?
Always to surprise myself; then I lop off everything up to that point and begin again.
What was the first thing you ever published?
If I discount the hand drawn newspaper I co-edited with a coterie of neighborhood kids, it was a poem in Hobart Park, the literary journal of Davidson College.
Do you read literary journals? What are some of your favorites?
I read as many as I can get my hands on in Wilmington. I read them to scout for new authors, of course, but also for design innovations and trends. Favorites include Tin House, the Paris Review, Harvard Review, the Oxford American, the Southern Review, the Common, and A Public Space.
What's one piece of advice no one gave you when you were starting out, that you wished they had?
I wish someone had convinced me early on that editors aren’t writers’ adversaries, and we certainly don’t have it out for aspiring writers. (Rejecting submissions is hands down the worst part of my job.) On the contrary, I’m in this because I want more than anything to be bowled over, moved, provoked; I want to feel, as Dickson described it, “as if the top of my head were taken off.” And I don’t much care whether it’s by a previously unpublished writer or a Pulitzer-winning author. I just want to discover and publish works that might one day reach through time and space to touch the soul of another human being. If I’d understood that earlier in my writing life, I might have felt a little more sympathy for all the overworked editors and publishers.
Please fill in the blank: I have read __ of the Harry Potter books.
Registration for the North Carolina Writers' Network 2013 Fall Conference closes Friday, November 8.