Barrelhousing with New Fiction Editors Tara Campbell and Chris Gonzalez

Barrelhouse has been publishing for thirteen years now. We're currently working on our eighteenth issue. These aren't remarkable numbers, but in the world of independent literary magazines, they put us in the territory where every now and then somebody will ask about the secret of our continued existence: how are we still here?  We really believe the answer to that question is people, and in particular the people we've added over the past several years. It's pretty simple: new people have kept us in business not only by bringing in new energy, but also by bringing in new ideas, new approaches and backgrounds and predilections and preferences. New eyes, new ears. Don't tell the current resident of the White House this, but bringing in new people who aren't just like us is pretty much the only reason Barrelhouse is still a going concern and certainly the reason it is, as we like to think, a contemporary and vital and constantly evolving thing. 

So...when we have a chance to add a few new awesome, smart, talented editors, we feel like it's time to celebrate, and now is that time: we're very pleased to officially announce that former Assistant Editors Tara Campbell and Chris Gonzalez have taken on new responsibilities as Fiction Editors at Barrelhouse. We've been lucky to get to know Tara and Chris as editors, writers, and friends over the past few years, and we couldn't be happier to welcome greater contributions from both in this new role. We sat down over the virtual water cooler to ask them a few questions about them, us, and what they're hoping to bring to our readers as Fiction Editors. 
 

Tara Campbell

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1) Okay, first: tell us about all the things you do that aren’t Barrelhouse-adjacent

After a career in international education and university admissions, I took advantage of an opportunity to switch gears and focus on writing (but just until my husband retires; then I’ve got to get my butt back into a j-o-b). I’ve got a book out, and a new collection on the way. I teach fiction at a couple of different places in the DC area, and I’m a full-time MFA candidate at American University, so I’m on both sides of the student/teacher table.

2) What made you want to work with us, besides that we just kept asking you? 

The thing I like about Barrelhouse is the spirit of, “Okay, let’s try it.” That easygoing curiosity permeates both the magazine and the projects like Amplifier and the book publication side. This spirit shouldn’t be confused with, “Okay, whatever,” however, because the quality still has to be there. The Barrelhouse vibe is like a fun conversation with a clever, well-read, but definitely unstuffy friend.

3) What are you looking for in fiction submissions? What makes a story stand out from the slush pile for you? 

I’m kind of a sucker for fresh, straightforward storytelling with a compelling narrator (note, “compelling” is not synonymous with manic pixie dream girl or pot-addled dude-bro). That said, I can leap into lush language, but I still want all that beautiful prose to work up to some kind of transformation by the end—whether for good or ill. I’m also open to genre-blending. I color outside genre lines in my own writing, so while straight military sci-fi is not my jam, for example, I’m open to a speculative element in fiction submissions.

4) Who are some of your favorite contemporary fiction writers? 

I’m the world’s worst person with this question, because some of my favorites are some I actually know, and as soon as I list one, I’ll worry about all the others I’m not listing. So, I’m going to list some of my random already-famous favorites: Margaret Atwood, ZZ Packer, Edwidge Danticat, Joyce Carol Oates, Christopher Buckley, Jennifer Eagan, Alice Munro, Jeannette Wells, Gary Shteyngart, Barbara Kingsolver… This is supremely unhelpful if you’re trying to decide what to submit to me, because it’s all over the place. Just submit you. 

5) If you could change one thing about the current lit world, what would it be? 

I’d phase out the age-limited awards, you know, the 35 under 35 and all that kind of thing. Not that those writers don’t deserve support, but there’s kind of a lacuna between those awards and the more recent 50-and-over variety. Why not just celebrate writing without putting limits on it? I really enjoy reading writers who have developed a different expertise and sense of self before putting pen to paper. Oh, and a two-fer: I’d do away with those crazy gazillion-dollar advances. Spread that $#!% out a little, why don’t ya?

6) We’re legally obligated to ask you this: what’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

Oof, hard choice, but I’m gonna go with Outsiders, which I watched in the full glory of pre-teen angst and will never re-screen, and thus it will “stay golden” forever.
 

Chris Gonzalez

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1) Okay, first: tell us about all the things you do that aren’t Barrelhouse-adjacent
 

I work in ebook production. Most of my job involves performing quality assurance on our trade titles and ushering files along the print-to-digital conversion process. I also oversee production for a ton of romance/erotica e-originals, which is always a treat. 

On the best days, I feel like I get paid to read material I normally wouldn’t gravitate towards, and as a result I’ve learned quite a lot: there are, for example, 7000 different ways to write a recipe description for a standard spaghetti carbonara (about 3000 if you eliminate any references to a grandmother’s kitchen); and it is possible for a threesome between a human and two blood-thirsty, paranormal shapeshifters to be the least shocking scene in a book.

On the just O.K. days, I’ll write emails and listen through an entire musical cast recording. Right now SpongeBob SquarePants and Falsettos are getting equal time on my Spotify.

Outside of the office, I frequent happy hours wherever cheese fries and infused bourbons are offered. Then, at night, when I’m not yelling robotic Spanish into my Duolingo app, I lie supine in bed and work on short stories about queer Latinx characters trying to figure their shit out.


2) What made you want to work with us, besides that we just kept asking you? 

Barrelhouse appeals to so many things I love: reading weird stories, humor, my sorta-fascination-turned-intense-adoration for Guy Fieri, and general pop culture. But, even more important, I appreciate that Barrelhouse discusses and thinks about how the lit world could be better. I was brought on as an assistant fiction editor after responding to a call on Twitter that had emphasized an interest in hearing from POC and LGBTQ writers. This felt like a good sign that, as a publication, Barrelhouse was honest about its own shortcomings and interested in bringing in other perspectives. Within an hour of seeing that tweet, I had drafted and submitted my application.

It’s been about a year and a half since I started working with Barrelhouse. I didn’t know then that I would befriend so many people who are, to quote Tom, both very good and nice. What I get from Barrelhouse—what I am most grateful for—is a family: a supportive network of writerly, artistic, bourbon-loving, Wawa-vs-Sheetz debating friends who all fucking rock and whom I hold dearly in my heart. So, out of a desire to keep the party going, to connect with more writers, to find great stories that are peculiar or heart-breaking and written by people too often ignored, and to think critically about the goals of a lit mag in the coming year of our Lord 2018 and beyond, I am thrilled to move into the role of a full editor.


3) What are you looking for in fiction submissions? What makes a story stand out from the slush pile for you? 

There are certainly themes I’m drawn to more than others. Fucked up family dynamics. Relationships at the point of collapse. Bodily functions. Anxieties that manifest literally. I enjoy when humor and melancholy are in a ping-pong game for twenty or so pages. And I will always, always be a fan of sincerity. 

I think stories stand out right away due to the language and voice or the introduction of a unique premise. My hope is the story builds off of these elements—I lose interest when it rests too heavily on their surface. But when that building happens, and the writer really sinks their claws into what it would look like for, say, a festering zombie to teach high school calculus, or what might go through the mind of teenage cashier on the last Black Friday before the world ends, then I’m going to want to keep reading.

What I’m really looking for, I guess, is fiction that could only be written today. We’re living in incredibly weird times. I want to read fiction that doesn’t try to side step the abyss. That seems too easy right now.

4) Who are some of your favorite contemporary fiction writers? 

The first few that come to mind are Carmen Maria Machado, Bryan Washington, Shruti Swamy, Manuel Gonzales, Brit Bennett, Justin Torres, and Miranda July. 

5) If you could change one thing about the current lit world, what would it be? 

Financial access. There are a lot of exciting workshops, classes, conferences happening in the lit world, but the expectation that people should dump a large sum of money upfront in order to partake really weeds out so many marginalized people. I don’t think one necessarily needs any of these to make it as a writer; however, when we’re talking about establishing a community, more financial access could only help. By eliminating such barriers or at the very least allowing for more wiggle room, and by paying writers, there would only be more room at the table. 

6) We’re legally obligated to ask you this: what’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

Road House. Absolutely. 100%. Although, my ideal would be the epic throat-ripping scene and the pottery scene from Ghost on an endless loop. Make of that what you will.