Smile Politely

Getting Lit with Ted Sanders

There will be many genres of literature on display at Pygmalion Lit Fest this week: poetry, fiction, essay, and innumerable subcategories of each. Some of the writers included in the readings and discusstions will be monogamous to one type of writerly relationship, while others, like Ted Sanders, are a bit more… promiscuous. Literarily speaking.

Here’s what he had to say for himself.

Smile Politely: What was your first publication?

Ted Sanders: Strangely I had two. They kind of overlapped. The one I say was my first was Georgia Review, and I think technically that was my first acceptance. But then I also got a story accepted at Berkley Fiction Review. I think that one may have actually come out first.

SP: What do you think it takes to be a working writer…

Sanders: Oh shit…

SP: …in ten words or less?

Sanders: [Laughs] Well, I think obsession really. That’s the main thing. You have to be obsessively concerned with making your shit better all the time. I mean that’s basically what it is. That’s what I’m doing all the time. I’m re-reading re-reading re-reading everything I wrote and trying to make it as good as I can. If you get sick of that quickly, or if you’re not willing to keep at it, then you should find something else to do, because that’s what writing is: being obsessive about what you wrote and trying to make it better.

SP: Do you have any strategies or preparations for readings?

Sanders: Interestingly, I saw Brock Clarke read. He had fifteen minutes to read and he read this sweet, funny, moving little piece that was maybe eight minutes long and then he dropped the mike and got down. That’s the way to do it. You want to read shorter than your allotted time. It’s easy to get up there on the stage and say, “I’ve got twenty minutes and I want to fill twenty minutes.” With fiction readings people kind of zone in and out if it goes on for a long time and it’s always better to leave them wanting more. And you have to read for the mood of the place. If it’s a bar at ten o’clock at night then that’s different from a bookstore at two in the afternoon. You should pick your pieces accordingly. More boobs and cussing for the bar stories, more jokes; you don’t want a lot of deaths in your bar stories.

SP: Who are you excited to see read?

Sanders: Jamaal [May] is the person I’m most excited to see read.

SP: How do you balance your teaching and the work you do on the book series you’re coming out with?

Sanders: Well, some would argue that I don’t. I’m feeling like I don’t right now. I think I’m lucky that I can get in and out of the writing pretty quickly most days. If I get home and I’m not tired, I can shift out of the teaching mode pretty quickly and sit down and start writing. I don’t need a real sacrosanct space. But the main thing I have to do is that I have to compartmentalize. Last spring I was teaching four days and should’ve started book two then, but I didn’t end up starting till June. [Editor’s Note: “Book Two” refers to the next installment in Sanders’ The Keepers series, Book One of which — The Box and the Dragonfly — is seen at left.] Now I’ve got it dialed down to two days so I can have long stretches where I can work. It is a sustained thing and I have to remember where I’m at and keep it in my head.

SP: Is it hard for you to transition between middle grade and literary writing?

Sanders: Sometimes yeah. I think the middle grade stuff is easier to write for me. I think I’m actually better at it. I do notice my books tend to be on the literary side, and my editor tells me. I kind of just let it happen, and it will get smoothed out in editing. I have noticed that when I’m working on something literary for a while and when I go in and work on the book that I’ll kind of be in a too fancy mode for a while until I can get back in the groove of the middle grade voice, so yeah it’s tough. But it’s not unusual for me to have a chapter of the book open and to simultaneously work on other things.


You can see (and hear) Ted Sanders (as well as Jamaal May) at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, September 26th, at 10:30 p.m. For a complete schedule of all Pygmalion events, click here.

More Articles