Under the Gum Tree is a magazine that “strives for authentic connections through vulnerability.” Under the Gum Tree is a digital as well as a print literary micro-magazine that accepts creative nonfiction and visual art. It uses a quarterly format and submissions are open year round. Interview with Robin Martin, Senior Editor of Under the Gum Tree
Conducted by Ian Zeiders, Susquehanna ’16
What was your role in the creation of this magazine? I know that you’ve been with Under the Gum Tree from the beginning, so how has your role in the magazine progressed or changed, if at all, now that you are the Senior Editor?
I climbed on board for the first issue kind of as a favor to a grad-school colleague, and spent the first couple of years familiarizing myself with CNF as a vehicle for storytelling, and what it was, exactly about this ride that had Janna so jazzed up (I had come from fiction). Something really clicked for me at the start of the third year– I could step on the gas or the brake, and the gas it was. I love working with the Assistant and Associate Editors and I learn so much from them every time I log into Submittable and read their notes.
On that same note, what changes have you noticed in the magazine itself? How has it grown since the 2011 premiere issue in your perspective? And what are your–and the other editors–aspirations for it as a literary magazine?
The magazine has been pretty consistent since the first issue; we’ve done very little soliciting, happy to discover quality work by relatively unknown writers in our queue. The mag is so beautiful, and lends itself so well to the print medium, that it’s become more important as a print mag than I anticipated it would be. We are much more than a digital magazine as far as design. People want to put it on their coffee tables, in their magazine racks, in their lobbies (well, that last one is something we aspire to!).
Having a designer on hand, do you or any of the other editors have an influence in the design process, and to what extent? For example, is it usually easy to agree upon what to choose for the cover? And how does everything get decided on where to be placed within the magazine?
I keep sending links to artists that I like over to Aimee, but she apparently has an extensive list of her own favorites! In other words, I have no say in what art goes in or on the cover. Most of the selections I wind up liking, even if my first impressions were more lukewarm. There is only one set I really disliked, but I’m not going to reveal which one. When we receive submissions of art or photography (a rarity! we’re obviously not getting the word out in that community very well), Janna has the first look and then sends it to Aimee who is the art curator for the mag.
How is it working with such a small group on this magazine? To you personally, do you prefer it over working with a larger group?
I really enjoy working with such a small group because we can calibrate pretty easily. I worked for nearly five years with Narrative Magazine as one of about 75 assistant editors and one of about 15 PTEs, and while it was great fun to be in such a talented community, we didn’t have very much interaction or back and forth about too many pieces. As an NM contest judge, I don’t know how many there were, maybe a dozen of us, we got to discuss pieces more, which was always valuable, especially when I was learning how to do this job. With UTGT, we started with just four of us, three editors and the designer. At the beginning, we discussed every single piece in the submission queue and our meetings were in person and horrendously long! Now, we’ve got three assistant editors, a contributing editor, me, Janna, and the designer. It’s perfect because we have at least two readers on every piece in the queue, usually three, including me (I still read nearly everything that is submitted after the AEs read them). We do everything with Submittable but I still feel like I have a personal relationship with the other editors.
How does the fact that the magazine is created on a volunteer basis play into how much passionate effort is put into it?
This is an interesting question because it seems at some level to be equating financial benefit with passion, and in the creative arts, I think the two work pretty exclusively. But I know what you’re getting at, and here’s what I have to say about it: I believe in the mission of Under the Gum Tree, to publish well-wrought stories that embrace our human weaknesses. I admire Janna’s chutzpah for creating this non-fiction literary magazine just before the literary world started paying closer attention to creative non-fiction as an important and often beautiful genre. Look at this genre now! I don’t know if I can get away with saying we’re a leader in it, but certainly, when you’re up on the board and the wave is underneath you, you’re only looking forward. I had an adult beverage after dinner. That may have contributed to that metaphor as I’ve never surfed. Sorry if it was wrong.
I understand that you own Two Songbirds Press. How involved are you with that, do you enjoy being able to help out writers with their publishing and editing needs? And if you could, explain how your process for that works.
I started Two Songbirds Press when I left my position at a literary agency. Agenting is really hard, and you can work for a year on a book only to have it be rejected for some unfathomable (or fathomable) reason and you’ve worked for a year and don’t see a penny. Traditional publishing was changing, merging, becoming more about how many units can be sold than the quality of the writing and value of the work. I wanted to help people with the quality of their writing. I wanted to help people create valuable pieces of writing. I am happy to work with writers pursuing the traditional publishing route (in fact, for fiction I still maybe prefer it), but often I work with non-fiction writers who self-publish to boost their professional credibility or get their important message out. I do everything from developmental editing to copyediting to ghostwriting blog content and newsletters for my clients currently.
Under the Gum Tree has kept up with technology by being available by digital download, so where do you see that going? Where do you see your magazine being in the next decade?
Not only does Janna have the vision to create a digital download, but she facilitated a cross-country reading on Google Hangouts when we celebrated our two-year anniversary (we had readers in all four corners of the USA in the same room at the same time via web feed!), and for our three year anniversary launched a new live-reading series to coincide with the release of every new issue this year. What this means is that a contributor from Maine who is sharing her true stories can actually see the faces of her readers; she can see their reactions, live, even if they are in Sacramento, Cancun, or France. This is an amazing way to share our stories. I see our magazine becoming an integral part of this deepening community of writers and readers. Not just CNF but of all good writing. If any of you are interested, you can see this hangout here.
Is there any advice you would give to aspiring editors looking into the field of publishing?
Really, really, learn the craft, and never stop learning things over and over because everything is constantly changing; remember to have empathy and practice kindness always; don’t undervalue your experience and the input you can provide.