Adam Lefton is a writer and editor living in Austin, TX. His work has appeared in Water~Stone Review, Washington Square Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. In 2012, he co-founded LitRagger, the world’s first iPad application exclusively built for reading literary journals.
Why did you decide to pursue an MFA?
As a teenager, I wanted to be a screenwriter, but at Dickinson College the amazing Susan Perabo introduced me to writing fiction and I never turned back. When I graduated from Dickinson, I knew about this thing called an MFA, but Susan had—wisely—advised me to hold off on applying until I felt like I could absolutely do nothing else but devote two or three years to my writing. It was great advice. I worked in publishing for three invaluable years, and then I began to feel that itch. I’d been writing, but I wanted more time to give to my work. I wanted to return to an academic environment, to workshop. So I sent out a big pile of applications and was fortunate enough to be offered a spot in the program at Purdue University.
When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind?
Unfortunately, I was next in line to run Farrar Straus and Giroux.
But, actually, no. I left nothing behind. Some people might remember Black December and what happened in publishing after the financial crisis began in 2008. Lots of people lost their jobs, and I was one of them. Fortunately, I had already been planning on leaving to get my MFA, though there were a few tense weeks there after I lost my job when I still hadn’t been accepted anywhere.
When you started your program, what did you envision happening afterward?
Working in publishing substantially lowers your expectations as a writer. I think it’s probably made a number of my friends quit writing completely, though I doubt they’d admit as much. I don’t know if I really had a clear vision for what would happen after my MFA. I’d read thousands of query letters highlighting accomplishments exactly like the ones I hoped to soon have, and these books weren’t getting published. So I didn’t expect much–just a few publications. That’s it. I wanted to be a few steps further ahead with my writing than I had been when I started.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t think an MFA would automatically result in publication, as though it were some badge that made my work publishable. But I felt that immediately prior to entering the program I was on the cusp of breaking that threshold, and that the freedom to commit myself to crafting better stories would push me over the hump.
Since leaving Purdue, you’ve developed an app for people to read literary journals on their electronic devices. Where did the germ of that idea come from, and how did you develop it?
I was the Managing Editor of Sycamore Review at Purdue, and I spent a lot of time researching digital publishing methods for the journal. There were so many obstacles. The technology was too complicated, the cost too high. I started to wonder if maybe the best solution was one that didn’t exist yet, and then I wondered it out loud to the right person (which leads nicely to your next question).
Do you have a background in tech? If not, how did you become acquainted with the skills you needed to move this project forward?
LitRagger is a two person team. I’m incredibly lucky to have Landon Sandy as a partner and master of all things tech. The application would not exist if not for his incredible dedication. Landon is married to a friend of mine from workshop at Purdue. That’s how we met.
Would you say that there were concrete elements of your MFA that pointed you in the direction of this project, or was it a complete divergence?
Oh, absolutely. LitRagger would not exist otherwise. The people I met during my three years at Purdue were a huge asset during development. Many of the journals we launched with—HOBART, Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, etc–were involved in the process because I had ongoing relationships with their editors. More so, though, being at Sycamore Review for three years forced me to rethink journal publishing. I had been staunchly print when I arrived at Purdue. In fact, like many writer/editors I wanted to start my own print journal one day. But seeing how much amazing work was already being published in the journals I admired, and how little these journals were bought and read relative to the high numbers of people who sought publication in them, shifted my perspective. A lot. I began to feel like a new way of distributing work could be a much more significant contribution to the community than another journal. It could change, for the better, how we enjoy the work, making it more accessible, shareable, and interactive.
I don’t think we’re quite there yet with LitRagger. We are working on integrating social media so that readers can make recommendations through the app, much like you would in a program like Spotify, and will probably launch this feature in the Fall. Just imagine how much more likely people are to read a certain piece when they see on Facebook that it has been “liked” by a bunch of their friends.
The goal is to create a space for conversation about contemporary prose and poetry that is both a forum for debate and a catalyst for organic, social media driven publicity. That’s something I feel is severely lacking for literature, especially given how much technology has revolutionized other arts. So often, the work just sits there, nicely bound and printed, and even if people read it no one ever responds.
There’s a lot of work still left to do to achieve this, but I think the foundation is there, and we are growing.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
As you might guess, I do not work on LitRagger full time (it just wouldn’t pay the bills), and I’ve had a few other jobs since finishing my MFA. My typical LitRagger work day is a weekend, usually Saturday. I’ll hunker down at a coffee shop. I do a lot of the work at night too. Basically, between writing, various jobs, and LitRagger, I am a 7 day a week worker.
Do you like the work you do? Why or why not?
I love it. I mean, the grueling schedule can wear on me sometimes, but I am very passionate about this project. Plus, it’s kept me involved in a community that is sometimes difficult to stay in touch with once you’ve finished your MFA.
Are you writing these days? Publishing?
I knew this question was coming. The answer is yes, though not as much as I would like to be, and without the same kind of focused direction I had during my MFA, which feels at once liberating and distracting. I send out work less because I feel less pressure to get published. During the MFA, it’s pretty easy to get caught up in the excitement of submitting your work and the success of acceptance for yourself and your peers. I’ve pretty much reverted back to my pre-MFA approach to submitting work: only when I’m absolutely certain it’s ready and that I want this work to be mine.
Do you feel that you’ve been able to structure your time to privilege your writing? How do you do that?
It’s much harder. I don’t sleep much.
Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after you graduated? How did you respond to that opportunity?
Not in any significant way. I was offered a class at Purdue for the fall semester, but by the time they’d made that offer I had already decided to move to Austin and focus on LitRagger.
Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?
Not living off the stipend Purdue gave me. The program is very generous, one of the most well-funded in the country. But one of the drawbacks of three years in the professional world is that you become accustomed to a certain lifestyle. According to some financial records at various institutions that I won’t name, I borrowed money in order to maintain that lifestyle while getting my MFA, and despite numerous hoaxes and spells they continue to demand—via antiquated snail mail—that I return it.
Do you have any other words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs?
My first reaction to this question was: no one should be taking advice from me.
Just remember that pretty much every road after your MFA ends is going to be bumpy, so you might as well pick the one most interesting to you.
I found this rather helpful, especially as a working writer with his heart set on eventually pursuing an MFA. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), this interview is another reminder of all the scribes out there with similar ambitions, credentials and passion for the written word.
I especially like Lefton’s thoughts on pre-MFA vs. post-MFA submission mentality. As a writer inhabiting the former, it has taken me a while to figure out that my writing is my writing and I need consider if it is ready to be sent out and read. It slows everything down a little doesn’t it? It puts emphasis on quality, not speed and impulse.
As a Purdue retiree (I was Department Head when the writing program and Sycamore Review were established), I was more than a little interested in your story. I’d love to follow up and get LitRagger app, but I’m an Android guy. Do you anticipate development of the app for Android?