In Conversation with Shanna McNair and Scott Wolven, with Thoughts on The Writer’s Hotel and The New Guard
by Nicole Flippo
When you think of someone who “does it all,” writer and editor Shanna McNair personifies the archetype. She’s the Founder and Director of renowned writing conference The Writer’s Hotel. She’s also the Founding Editor and Publisher of The New Guard literary review, which mixes experimentation with tradition, and provides a platform for emerging writers to be published alongside more established voices. She writes in nearly every medium imaginable, including prose, poetry and scripts. She’s an award-winning journalist. She was a 2018 Hewnoaks Artist Colony Writer in Residence. She served as a RISCA Fiction Fellow Competition Judge, and as an Interdisciplinary Study Adviser at Lesley University. She was a 2011 Writer in Residence at the Thomas Lynch cottage in Moveen, Ireland, following a residency in Dingle through the University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA program. She also received a Creative Writing Certificate from Oxford University in conjunction with her study at the Dartmouth College Creative Writing Master’s program.
Of course, while Shanna makes up the first half of the dynamic duo behind The Writer’s Hotel and The New Guard, author and editor Scott Wolven is essential to the magic behind both entities as well. Wolven is widely regarded as a high authority on contemporary noir: he is the author of the short story collection Controlled Burn, he holds the record for the most consecutive appearances in The Best American Mystery Stories Series, and his work was featured in Best American Noir of the Century. Wolven’s story “The Copper Kings” can be found in 20 + 1, a prestigious new collection highlighting stories by “emblematic American authors.” Tommy Davis’ film “Hepburn,” which was featured at The New York Film Festival on the Main Stage, is based on Wolven’s short story “Hammerlock.” Most recently, Wolven’s short story “Playboy” was featured in Playboy Magazine. Much of Wolven’s writing brings into focus the blurred fringes and dark crevices of American life, with an emphasis on hardship in the lives of his characters and the geographical regions he explores.
LUMINA Journal Blog Editor Nicole Flippo traveled alongside Managing Editor Parks Kugle and FireFly Producer Katiy Heath to Scott and Shanna’s home in Maine, where they discussed The Writer’s Hotel, The New Guard, and how to be a good literary citizen.
This interview has been edited for time and clarity.
Nicole Flippo: Shanna and Scott, some of our readers might not be familiar with the benefits of conferences. Can you expand on the frame of The Writer’s Hotel and its benefits for the writing community?
Shanna McNair: The Writer’s Hotel is a program that basically starts at a writer’s desk and ends up in the heart of New York City’s literary marketplace. So, you take your writing to market in NYC. The features of the program are carefully stacked. Scott and I perform the two-editor team reading, which is a critique of a full-length manuscript. We include hundreds of comments, and then we follow up with a phone call. Then we meet in New York City for a weeklong conference. By the time writers get to New York they’re feeling an artistic momentum. It’s a wonderful thing. On-site there are workshops, lectures, agent pitch sessions, and writers get to read their own work at KGB Bar, KGB Bar’s Red Room, and Bowery Poetry Club. It’s pretty extraordinary. We really feel we are helping writers through the program. It’s carefully worked so that writers can put on their creative hat first. Then, when they get to the city, they can put on their marketing and editing hat. And through the program, they [learn] how to market their work and what the steps are, which I don’t think many writers know about. I feel like it’s a terrific opportunity.
Nicole: I think the all-encompassing nature of The Writer’s Hotel is so wonderful. Now, I am curious. You were the founder of both the Writer’s Hotel and The New Guard. Can you tell us about the relationship between the two entities?
Shanna: Absolutely. So, The New Guard literary review came first, and that was ten years ago. Then the Writer’s Hotel grew organically out of The New Guard. The Writer’s Hotel is essentially the teaching arm of The New Guard, and The New Guard is the editorial and publishing arm of the Writer’s Hotel. They are hand in glove. I started The New Guard because I wanted to be a good literary citizen and support my fellow writers, and The Writer’s Hotel is a natural expression of that aim. Instead of working together on paper, writers get to come together in person.
Nicole: I love how those two entities work together and feed off each other. Shanna, narrowing the focus to your own life as a writer: you’ve often been referred to as a Renaissance woman. In addition to founding The Writer’s Hotel and The New Guard, you write in multiple mediums, including fiction, poetry, screenwriting, and journalism. You are also a visual artist and musician. Do you intentionally cultivate this wide range of interests, or does it just happen naturally?
Shanna: It comes down to being excited about making art. Whether I’m creating a poem, a story, visual art, or music, creative expression is what I live for. I do cast a wide net and I maintain a lot of interests, which is intentional, but on the other hand these paths to art are stamped on my soul, and I don’t have a choice. I follow and I seek.
Nicole: It’s so wonderful that you have the instinct to express yourself artistically in a number of mediums. Obviously, that shows in the work that you’ve done with The Writer’s Hotel and The New Guard when it comes to the people you are working with behind the scenes to help bring their artistic capabilities to the forefront.
Shanna: Absolutely, my art self informs how the website looks, and what the books look like, and the fliers that I make for each reading. It works seamlessly. I have some design sense. The skillset works for my job description very well.
Nicole: Let’s talk a little about your editorial process. Shanna, I know you’ve mentioned that legibility always takes precedence over style when it comes to the work The New Guard looks to publish. Can you expand on this?
Shanna: If readers can’t understand a writer’s piece then I’ve failed them as an editor. It’s my job. I’m not interested in publishing writing that is illegible. Form comes second to legibility. If a writer can match an interesting form to a story, or a poem, or a piece from our letters section, fantastic, but I think it’s rare. As an editor I love experimentation, as a writer I love experimentation, but not just for its own sake. I think it should count, it should work. I think writers should keep their readers in mind if they want to put their work in print, because once it’s out there it becomes an object for others. It doesn’t quite belong to the writer—it belongs to the readership. I think writers should keep that in mind, and I think publishers and editors should keep that in mind.
Nicole: How does that perspective influence the editing process for The Writer’s Hotel?
Scott Wolven: [During] pre-conference for The Writer’s Hotel both of us read the entire manuscript of all the attendees. I think that’s really important for writers. This might be the first time in their career that they’re developing and experiencing an editorial relationship. [That’s] something that will continue for their entire career. Line edits are extremely important—to have that element of professional polish on a manuscript, not just rush it out the door. I think coming to The Writer’s Hotel gives the writers a keen sense of that and allows them to put some of those tools into their editorial toolbox, so that when they return to their desk they can call upon that skillset to make their work better.
Nicole: Being a part of The Writer’s Hotel and learning to navigate the writer/editor relationship behind an entire novel must be an incredible learning tool.
Shanna: Right. In an MFA program, for instance, you don’t get your entire novel read until you are in the thesis process, and, I think, it becomes a challenge once you graduate to figure out how to hold that entire project. What does a novel look like from beginning to end? How do I manage this project? How do I write another one? So, instead of having the same part of the novel read over and over again, we read the entire thing, and we talk about it as a whole entity. I think that’s very helpful for writers. It’s helpful for poets: they get their whole collection read. Short story writers get their whole collection read. We help them organize their work and look at them as a whole project too. I think it’s helpful, and it’s pretty singular.
Nicole: The New Guard and The Writer’s Hotel place emphasis on supporting emerging writers. The Writer’s Hotel specifically provides resources to writers at all stages of their careers. What was the motivation for the both of you behind consistently cultivating spaces with such intentional career level diversity?
Shanna: Acceptance to The Writer’s Hotel centers on the quality of the writing first and foremost. We accept established and emerging writers, but it always comes down to the words on the page. Our ultimate aim is to cultivate a space where writers of all stripes can learn from one another and flourish in the program. We intentionally built an environment that includes all writers. We can all learn from each other. Our literary community is richer for that. There is room for everyone at the great table of writers, as I always say. We can all add to the great stack of American letters—that’s something Scott says. It’s a wonderful delight to see Marie Howe, or Mark Doty, or Tim Seibles work with an older poet who is just coming into their own; to see a young memoirist work with Megan Daum; to see a fiction writer work with Sapphire, or Rick Moody, or Elizabeth Hand. We have such an incredible group of writers teaching in NYC, and ultimately they discover their own voices and it’s wonderful. I also want to mention that the generosity of spirit between the teachers and the participants is a joy to behold too, and I’m always moved by this considered tenderness with which the participants of The Writer’s Hotel talk about one another’s work.
Scott: I think that diversity at all levels is an important part of the program, and that extends to where people are within their career. Sometimes you have the person who is just taking their work seriously for the first time, and they’ve made a bet on themself to come to the conference, and I really like that. Then there’s someone who may have had a career in banking, and they have decided that now after their retirement, really, what they always wanted to be is a novelist, and they are going to give it a try, and they have a story to tell. I like to hear those stories. It’s always very curious to me what people bring to the table at the TWH. It’s like belonging to the best eclectic book club in the world. You never know what you’re going to see. It’s really special to be a part of it.
Nicole: As all these people from different backgrounds come together to learn, The Writer’s Hotel also focuses on writers at the individual level. How do the two of you work with writers to identify their individual needs? How collaborative is that diagnostic process?
Scott: We always start off by talking to people on the phone after we’ve read a sample of their work, and then we read the entire work. In terms of pre-conference reading, we will typically have a meeting after both of us have read the work and discuss the ins and outs of what needs to happen editorially to make this the best work possible. In my function as an editor I try never to be prescriptive. This is the writer’s story, this is not my story. I want it to sound more like themself versus anything else. People always talk about how it’s difficult to find your voice as a writer, and it is. That’s a tough process. Sometimes to climb that mountain you need a sherpa, and I guess I’m that sherpa. I feel lucky to be doing that. On the Private Study end of things, where we work with a writer for a year on some specific projects, we will have discussions back and forth with that writer and say, “So what’s your intent here? What do you want to do?” Besides just the general overall, someone may say, “Well, I’ve written a novel-length manuscript, but I’d also like to work on some short stories.” We will go a lot deeper than that and teach them techniques and editorial tools to help get them where they need to be. It’s two different animals, writing short stories and novels. Sometimes it can take different toolsets. It’s nice to have pretty sentences, but you’ve really got to make it count at that short story level. We try to work on things to bring the writer along their own path.
Shanna: We read each manuscript alone. First, we both make our hundreds of comments, then we come together and talk about it afterward. It’s interesting in terms of processing things. Sometimes we differ in opinion, which I think is really helpful to the writer. They get these two different perspectives. Two different sets of eyes on the manuscript is always good.
Nicole: It’s inspiring to hear the process of how in depth the both of you go in working with each individual writer. How do the two of you work together to cultivate that dual mentorship?
Scott: I think that’s an excellent question. I would use poetry as a good example of that. For myself, I was very fortunate to study poetry with Richard Howard and Alice Quinn and I do not write poetry per se, but I am a terrific reader of poetry. I love poetry. I wish I could write poetry. I have found myself to be an editor who is looking at the collection as a whole, whereas I think writers would find Shanna to be much more focused on the form and the individual construction of the lines. They’re going to be able to have meaningful conversations with her about meter. I’m not necessarily that guy. I’m the guy who goes through the collection and says, “Five of these poems seem to be about the moon in some way. Do you want to write a poem about the moon and wrap that theme up? So your reader can follow you.” Specifically, with poetry, I’m about editing the whole, so it can then be brought out as a chapbook or a full volume.
Nicole: You two really are a dream team of editors. That’s so wonderful.
Shanna: (Laughs) You can call us that, sure.
Nicole: Hey, I love it. I think it absolutely hits in on the nail. Now, I would love to speak further about The New Guard. Specifically, starting off, I want to focus on how The New Guard hosts the Machigonne Fiction Contest and the Knightville Poetry Contest. What goes into the literary review’s process when choosing judges for each competition?
Shanna: We’re really lucky. We know a lot of writers. We’ve been at this awhile. We are writers ourselves. Part of why I founded The New Guard is that I was able to bring in these incredible writers to judge the books. We had U.S. Poet Laureates Donald Hall and Charles Simic judging poetry. We had Chris Abani and Rick Moody judging Fiction. We also have a themed letter section in each volume, so we brought in some writers there. We had Stephen Dunn, Sarah Knowles Bolton, Tess Gerritsen, Thomas Lynch, March Piercy and Afaa Michael Weaver. The New Guard is supposed to showcase experience and tradition and established and emerging writers in a single volume. I think we’ve done well with that. Scott brought in John Callahan, by the way, who is the literary executor of Ralph Ellison’s estate, and with [him] the previously unpublished story Storm of Blizzard Proportions. Scott and I are a good team there as well.
Nicole: Regarding logistical elements, The New Guard is an independent literary review that doesn’t fund itself through advertising. What benefits and challenges arise from that strategy?
Shanna: The New Guard is a labor of love. I started it ten years ago. It’s challenging to operate a labor of love. I really care about The New Guard, and I work hard to publish the very best stories and poems I can possibly publish. It’s a thrill to be able to publish an emerging writer alongside something by Sharon Olds. That’s just a thrill. It’s challenging when anything costs money, so I have to set that aside and focus on the work, and putting out a really good book that will stand the test of time on the shelf, that will continue to mature well on the shelf.
Nicole: The New Guard publishes exclusively in print. The exception to this format is BANG!, an online feature that publishes three short works by a single writer for a full month at a time. What was the inspiration behind adding this component to The New Guard’s website?
Shanna: This is another instance where Scott and I are a fantastic dream team of editors. It was Scott’s idea. We publish in print because we love books, but the BANG! feature was Scott’s idea.
Scott: People frequently want to publish, but what they give [us] may not fit what [we’re] publishing right then. So, [we] turn that around a bit and give them some parameters: write me three pieces at 500 words a piece. Those loose parameters sometimes help the writer find some creativity, and then they have some immediate gratification by seeing it online. It seemed to be a two birds, one stone situation.
Shanna: It’s also good because it’s not like you’re taking their short story and putting it up online, or a part of their novel and putting it up online, which might make it challenging for the writer later to publish the book. This way the work isn’t going to interfere with potential publication later on. It’s going to be just for this purpose, to show what they’re good at. To give them a minute to be online for a whole month. It serves as a calling card.
Nicole: With all of this in mind, throughout all the different elements that have come and gone through The New Guard, how have you seen it change and grow over the years? Also, how would you envision it developing five years from now?
Scott: Well, I would imagine that it will be sort of the same as it is now. One of the things we’re aiming for is consistency. I also think that I’ve seen a lot of literary publications change and jump through hoops, and a lot of times that’s because of change in editorship or a change in funding. We don’t have any funding, and unless after this interview Shanna kicks me out, the editorship is going to remain the same. I assume it will be similar to where it sits right now, and, hopefully, it will continue to grow as it has been.
Nicole: I love The New Guard, and it’s exciting to hear it’s going to keep on keeping on as it is. Now, I would like to direct us towards you, Scott. Your work has been selected for Best American Mystery Stories numerous times, as well as Best American Noir of the Century. You’re unquestionably an authority on contemporary noir. What draws you personally to writing and reading within that genre?
Scott: I really enjoy it. Jim Thompson was asked to describe his plotlines, and he said something along the lines of “things are not what they seem.” That appeals to me. I like some of the hardboiled aspects of it. Noir allows for urban and rural settings, and some of my stories take place in the woods. I feel like there’s a lot of room to stretch out and do things.
Nicole: Is there anything you consider a hallmark element of noir in your own work? Also, what elements do you consider to be the central pillars of the noir genre overall?
Scott: I think that I usually describe my own work as bad people doing bad things to other bad people. That’s at least some of it. I’m paraphrasing here, but in the genre as a whole maybe I’m looking for stories that evoke the most ungraspable human destinies. I did not write that line, it came from the Nobel Prize Committee a couple years ago. I like crime in all its forms. Maybe the geographies that have been ravaged by a sort of crime, or the hard living that comes from habitating a certain geography. Difficult people in difficult circumstances. All of that is very appealing to me.
Nicole: That’s so interesting, and it makes me want to jump ahead to another question relating to the geography of your own work. In Controlled Burn, you center your stories around geographic regions within the United States, specifically the Northeast Kingdom and, as you put it, the Outlaw West. What drew you to write about these regions? How do the regions influence the work?
Scott: I like rural locations. I like places where 200 dollars is a lot of money. People that work under these conditions in those environments. Places where help in the form of the police might be 40 minutes away, or more, or not even available. I want the reader to feel that they’ve been there. I want to take them someplace and have them experience that.
Nicole: You have several characters that make appearances across a number of your stories. What goes through your head when you’re considering bringing a character back? Do you feel that recurring characters appear in conjunction with certain recurring themes of your work?
Scott: If it feels right I try to make them come to life, the characters. They have to fit into the story somehow. I’m just trying to tell a good story. If there’s a theme there it’s probably inadvertent.
Nicole: Shanna, in your writing, what elements do you find yourself returning to?
Shanna: I think it’s loss. I tend to write about the theme of loss and about the terrible puzzle of humanity. There’s definitely an element of dirty realism in my stories. They’re centered on people who struggle to find themselves. The stories are of people who are offbeat characters, wild spirits who were once free, who yearn to be free again somehow. Life is hard, I write about that. I also lay in a healthy dose of dark humor to keep myself sane.
Nicole: What are the two of you working on now? Please feel free to answer in regards to your own individual writing and projects within and beyond The Writer’s Hotel.
Shanna: I’m working on a collection of short stories and a novella, which I’m almost finished with. The novella was a novel, so it was reduced from novel-length to novella. I’m working up a few more short stories to include because the collection didn’t feel complete, so I’m working on that, sort of dreaming it up. It’s neat to work up a collection of stories, because the stories talk to each other, and you need them to make music together. It has to feel cohesive and strong. Scott and I have been tossing around some ideas about TV pilots, so that’s been fun.
Scott: That’s true. It’s a real pleasure, of course, to work with Shanna. She has a special kind of genius. I feel very lucky in that regard. There are some very big things on the board in 2020. I’m very excited, but I don’t want to jinx things so I’m not going to say anything. How noir is that of me?
Nicole: In that case, I will be on the edge of my seat to see what comes out in 2020! Is there anything else you would like to share with us, or anyone who’s looking to submit to The New Guard or apply to The Writer’s Hotel?
Shanna: Be excited about what you’re doing. Keep that excitement level high. That’s what’s going to see you through the project. Try and carve out a discipline if you can. You don’t have to write every day to be a writer, but try to keep your finger on the spot. Don’t lose the excitement with your project, because you kind of have to start over if you lose touch. That would my big recommendation. We are always looking for great stories and poems for The New Guard, and we are always looking to work with new writers for The Writer’s Hotel.
Scott: I would encourage you to take yourself seriously as a writer and give yourself a shot. You’ve decided to do this, you know it’s a difficult thing, you’ve elected to do something that’s not easy. But now that you’re in it, do it. Make the best out of it that you possibly can. You might meet with some success, but you won’t know if you don’t try. That’s the key right there. A lot of positivity helps. Have positive friends around you who won’t make fun of you.
Shanna: Never, never, never give up.
Scott: Never give up. That’s true.
Nicole: Thank you so much for these fantastic words of wisdom. Shanna, Scott, it has been both a joy and honor. Thank you for speaking with us here at LUMINA Journal, and we wish you all the best on all your projects.
Learn more about The New Guard here.
Learn more about The Writer’s Hotel here.
Nicole Flippo is a current MFA in Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, and the Blog Editor for LUMINA Journal. Previously, she received a BFA in Dramatic Writing with a minor in Creative Writing from New York University. She has interned with Comedy Central’s Inside Amy Schumer. She was also a primary cast member of WNYU’s America News Now. Her writing has appeared in Grimm Tales literary journal and has received awards with the Bare Bones International Film and Music Festival, Fusion Film Festival, Oklahoma State One Act Festival, Oregon Short Film Festival, Union Film Festival, Talent Factory’s Script and Storyboard Showcase, and others.