The Word: Andrew Tonkovich, Editor of Santa Monica Review

by Meredith Resnick

[Bringing this piece to the fore…it is, one might say, from the archives. Enjoy.]

Individual tastes and interests in a story vary from person to person, and within that person, from day to day. What remains a constant, however, is the story’s (or essay’s, novel’s, memoir’s) ability to tap into what is real, to mine a buried truth, whether or not the intellect always agrees.

Andrew Tonkovich is the editor of the literary magazine the Santa Monica Review, for which he reads hundreds of submissions each month. He’s also host of the program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK-FM where he speaks with award-winning authors and poets, often about social issues but also about fiction and nonfiction writing.

When I asked Andrew a while what must occur in a work to make it a story that moves other people, to take them to a place where they relate, Andrew suggested that relating to a subject may not actually be the most crucial factor in a work. Here’s what he said:

“I am not sure what moves other people. Lately I feel like moving away from other people or shouting at them, loud, especially those who seem not to relate to the story, as it were, of the collective nightmare we seem to be dreaming just now, the war and the drift to fascism and a president who wants to kill whales in the name of national defense. With that clumsy but important caveat, let’s say that I am not sure that relating is exactly how I’d put it, and why aren’t more people writing about those subjects, huh? Sure, I know what you mean, but instead of relate I’d prefer “be engaged” or something that describes that exquisite condition of not being able to put the story down, of being in on the joke, of hearing the voice of the writer. So that when I pick up a piece of writing and find myself both excited by reading it and despairing at getting to the end of it, I know I am engaged.

“When I look up and find that I am giddy and self-conscious with delight at my own little participation in the project, and see, joyfully, that I have been tricked or seduced into this condition and eager, finally to see the writing succeed and scared that it won’t, well, that’s what has to happen.On these occasions I never have even a doubt and often do not even reread the story, cannot, painfully sweet that is, just think about it lots and congratulate myself for being its lucky reader and, of course, contact the writer immediately to lay a tiny wreath at her feet.

“How does the writer do that? I’ll limit myself here to ‘beginnings.’ By quickly, very quickly,bringing the reader into the experience of the telling, with suspension of disbelief, characterization, voice, a premise elaborated upon, a world quickly made real. All of that, of course. One of my favorite opening lines of a story, this one by Jim Krusoe, titled “A Cowboy’s Story”: “Howdy.” That is voice (funny, droll, self-conscious) and the promise of a story. Perfect. Now somebody out there should write about a whale being tortured by U.S. Navy sonar which begins, ‘Lately my ears hurt.’ ”

Read The Writer’s [Inner] Journey with Andrew about his writing here.

Visit the Santa Monica Review here.

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Kim Hooper

I agree with him about beginnings and engagement. I don’t “relate” to a lot of the stories I love, but I can’t put them down. I’m drawn in within the first few lines, usually, and there is something about the character’s voice that keeps me reading.


Great description of engagement – and intro to an author I’m not familiar with (Jim Krusoe), and a radio show I must now follow! Great read.

Amy Wallen

Lately my ears have been ringing, and they say that’s a sign that someone’s talking about you. Well, I wish they’d quit talking and just do something. Everybody’s got a side, everybody’s got a reason, and everybody wants to argue about it. In the meantime, while everyone’s talking about the Navy and it’s big sonar testing and whether or not it’s hurting me, my mom and my baby’s ears, I’m wondering when are they going to just quit. Perhaps this is how evolution works–we whales just get so mad that we grow our own legs and tromp right on up the shore, across the fields of middle America where they are waving inane signs that read, “Jesus didn’t heal the sick for FREE, Obama”, then right on up the driveway at 1600 Pennsylvania, but not to the oval office, I go straight down stairs to that war room and yank out all the plugs. But then that’s just me getting on my kelpbox. Gotta go yank up a few sea anemone to stuff my ears.

Andrew’s my hero.

Liz Zuercher

I agree. There’s nothing quite like being engaged in a piece of writing. It’s transporting. As a writer, I only wish I knew better how to create that in my work.

Susan Cameron

Reading hundreds of submissions every month sounds like a daunting (though enjoyable) task — and writing work that grabs the attention of such an inundated editor seems pretty daunting as well! This interview reinforces for me how important it is to make the work interesting right out of the gate. Thanks!

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