Trained as an architect at RISD, Editorial Panel member and long-time NER reader Ernie McLeod talks with us about his coveted native-Vermonter status, reading, writing, and photography, and the joy of finding nuance in a piece of Submittable fiction.
There are only three of us in-house every day, the NER machine is spread across the country—where are you coming to us from?
I’m coming from just up the street. I’ve lived in Middlebury with my Middlebury College-professor husband, Kevin Moss, for over twenty years now. I also like to claim my native Vermonter status (I grew up in Barre), since it gives me a touch of exoticism within the College community.
What’s your literary background? Where would you like to see yourself, literarily, in five years?
I went to art school and studied architecture (at Rhode Island School of Design) so my literary background is sketchy. I still have major gaps in my reading. But, at the end of college, I developed an acute interest in literature—to the detriment of my thesis project—and it’s mostly kept up since, though I admit to reading more books pre-social-media. In my early thirties, I did the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, where I learned craft and, perhaps more importantly, how to critique other writers’ work, a skill I later honed though participation in the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference over a number of years.
Where would I like to see myself, literarily, in five years? Honestly, I’m at a stage of life where health, happiness, engagement in the world, and giving support to friends and family who need it are my top priorities. That said, I’d love to finish the novel (set in Vermont) I’ve been working on for too long, and I certainly wouldn’t mind publishing more short stories and other pieces. And, of course, I want to keep reading.
Do you write/teach? What do you write (or teach)? How does reading for NER impact your own work and life?
I leave the teaching to my husband, but I write (see aforementioned overdue novel), mostly fiction, though I’ve done other types of writing over the years: comic sliver-of-life essays for Seven Days, a monthly Queer (Literary) Classics column for Vermont’s late, lamented LGBTQ paper Out in the Mountains, and lots of advocacy writing in support of marriage/LGBT equality as a volunteer and board member for Vermont Freedom to Marry.
Reading for NER assures me that many people still care about creating literature. Though most of what I read doesn’t end up in the magazine, many of the submissions show thoughtfulness and dedication to human storytelling, and that’s truly heartening, particularly in this harsh political moment. Seeing a broad spectrum of work that’s being created right now helps me keep my finger on the pulse of contemporary fiction. Being part of the NER team also keeps me in touch with a local community that cares about literature and the arts, and that’s extremely valuable even if I do most of my reading on a sofa at home.
What do you like to read on your own?
I read mostly literary fiction, both novels and short stories. Nowadays, I find I’m reading more news analysis, not always to the benefit of my mental health. Lately, I’ve been really into Elizabeth Strout. She’s fearless and accessible, one of those writers who reminds me why I wanted to write in the first place.
As a younger person and writer, I was greatly influenced by the work of William Trevor, Denton Welch, Deborah Eisenberg, James Baldwin, Alice Munro, Paul and Jane Bowles, Joy Williams, Carson McCullers, Edmund White, Lydia Davis, and Peter Cameron. They’re writers I’m always happy to return to.
How did you come to read for us? And why?
Circa 1998 Michael Collier (former director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference) called me out of the blue and asked if I’d like to be on the Bread Loaf Admissions Board. I assume he knew of me via Warren Wilson, but I’m not sure. My reading partner was Jodee Stanley, then managing editor of NER, and she asked if I’d also like to read NER submissions. Five hundred a year, I think! Back in those days, before electronic submissions became the norm, it was handy to be local so you could fetch piles of actual paper manuscripts. It was a good work out! I’ve been reading for NER off and on ever since, though it no longer entails heavy lifting.
What NER pieces stick with you? Why?
It’s such a thrill to have a story you helped find make it into the magazine—those pieces really stick with me. I make it a point to read blind (looking at the cover letter only after reading the submission), so it’s especially satisfying to come across a great piece by a writer who hasn’t published much.
Two stories I was really pleased to see make it into the magazine were Tyler Sage’s “Lionel” (Volume 37, Number 2, 2016) and Amanda Haag’s “Little Girl’s Point” (Volume 34, Number 2, 2013). I admired the idiosyncrasies of both stories, the way they established their own pace, and how they set up potentially melodramatic climaxes only to go somewhere quieter, deeper, more nuanced. I need nuance in fiction. In Tyler’s case, it was nice because we’d seen several submissions from him that were strong but didn’t quite make the cut. Finally being able to publish something from a persistent and consistently strong writer is gratifying. In Amanda’s case, NER was her first publication. Discovering new talent is always exciting.
Another recent favorite was Michael Parker’s “Stop ’n’ Go” (Volume 38, Number 1, 2017), which went on to be selected for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2018. So much life in so few words! I’m not always a fan of short shorts, but this was a masterpiece of economy.
What do you do when you’re not reading for us?
My biggest passion (aside from reading for NER!) is photography. Unless the weather is completely miserable, I’m out walking and photographing every day and I try to share two photos with the world each day. It’s a routine I can’t imagine living without. As with writing, photography is about making choices and editing, though photography has an immediacy that writing doesn’t have, at least for someone who writes as slowly as I do.
My husband and I like to cook and travel, especially to parts of the world where he speaks the language. Having a linguist husband is sure useful when you find yourself in, say, a town in Bosnia. We also spend a lot of time in Montréal, which provides a great contrast to Middlebury. I love Vermont, but I also love being in a place where restaurants stay open past 9pm.
Thank you, Ernie, for all you have done for NER over the years!