Seven Questions (+1) for Michelle Donahue

Today in Seven Questions, we introduce Ecotone associate editor Michelle Donahue. In addition to editing, Michelle writes fiction and has published essays and poems. Her prose has been supported by the Kentucky Foundation for Women and has been published in Arts & Letters, CutBank, Porterhouse Review, Passages North, and others. She received an MFA in creative writing & environment from Iowa State and a PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. Before joining Ecotone in August 2022, she was an editor for Quarterly West, the Adroit Journal, and Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment.

Michelle is a generous and energetic editor and a fabulous writer (not to mention a surfer and a brewer of beer). We are delighted to welcome her to the Ecotone team!

Co–fiction editor Becca Hannigan interviewed Michelle in fall 2022.

Michelle DonahueAs you settle in to Wilmington and your new roles at Ecotone and in the creative writing department, what do you find most exciting?

I’m most excited by the real commitment to community here. Everyone has been so welcoming, and it’s clear that people are interested in building a nourishing publishing, teaching, and writing environment. I’m honored to be a new member of such a beautiful ecosystem of writers, teachers, students, and editors.

Your degrees are in creative writing and literature as well as Could you share a specific experience, class, or conversation that’s carried you along? To what extent do you view your work as a writer and editor through a scientific lens?

When I was an undergraduate, I spent a semester studying on San Cristóbal Island in the Galápagos. It was such a unique experience that I’ve since tried to write about it, but always fail to capture it, with all of its strange beauty and contradictions. On the one hand, I spent my days lounging on the beach with sea lions who were wholly unafraid of humans. I watched blue-footed boobies perform their goofy mating rituals; I swam with green sea turtles, marine iguanas, manta rays, and reef sharks. It was unreal. But on the other hand, the Galápagos is a brutal, volcanic place, where the equatorial sun can burn unprotected skin in minutes. It’s a place where tourists who come to appreciate the unique life and landscape are also responsible for endangering its existence. I simultaneously loved every second of being there and felt guilty about my presence. I like this idea of an experience “carrying you along,” and my time in the Galápagos certainly has stayed with me in ways that are mollifying and maddening, celebratory and sad.

I think my background in science has changed the way I see the world, which I’m sure has affected the way I write and edit. In science, I was always drawn most to ecology, a discipline that focuses on relationships between the big and small, living and non-living. As a writer and editor, I’m interested in connections, in bringing the macro and the micro together.

You’ve worked as the managing editor for Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment as well as prose editor for Quarterly West and the Adroit Journal. How and when did you know you wanted to pursue editorial work?

As a younger writer, I wanted to be as involved as possible in any and every good literary community I could find. Editorial work seemed like such a tremendous opportunity to contribute and give back to the literary community, while learning about writing and publishing. Once I started with Flyway, I knew I’d found a lifelong passion.

Your choice for this question! Please respond to just one of these: Tell us about a favorite edit (a query big or small) you’ve received on your work. OR: What’s something you’ve discovered in editing that surprised you or helped your own writing?

My favorite (and also most frustrating!) edit came from my literary agent, before I was even officially her client. She suggested, quite rightly, that the historical fiction manuscript I was querying would be better with a modern frame narrative. What was frustrating, and also a bit funny, was that prior drafts had a modern frame narrative. Over the years, I had in fact added and removed two, or maybe three, different frames. I thought my struggle to get the frame right meant the novel didn’t need one, but her feedback made me realize just what sort of frame narrative I’d been looking for all that time. This is my favorite editorial comment because it shows how much of a process writing is, how easy it is to do the right thing in the wrong way, and the necessity of a good editorial eye.

In your fiction, nonfiction, and poems, you address environmental loss and damage, but playfully, and with lively characters—for example, in “A Love Letter to the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus” and “an asp with no [AS]s” (which won Treehouse’s prize for Unusual Prose). How do you balance the lighthearted and solemn, labor and love, in both your writing and your interactions with the natural environment?

I often worry about whether I successfully find these balances in my work. Although I’m very much a joyful, fun-loving person in life, I’m not sure why as a writer I’m drawn to horrendously miserable sorts of narratives. In my writing, I always try to integrate beauty, especially regarding language, which can act as a necessary balance to darkness and loss. I think, too, that there should always be the possibility of hope. I’m a desperately optimistic person, and that’s key in dealing with the environmental crises and writing about them.

What emerging authors are you most excited about?

I never know how to define emerging in these cases. Is it one book? None? A few short publications or none at all? At any rate, many of my former students who have few or no publications are emerging writers I’m very, very excited about. Look out for Kayla Belser, Lorel Burgess, or Mikayla Schutte in the years to come! In terms of those a little farther along in their path, I’ve been loving the work of Emily Dyer-Barker, especially in her lyric, strange science-driven “Three Stories” published by Juked, and Mario J. Gonzales, whose work I had the honor of publishing in Quarterly West. And one more: Erin Swan’s debut novel, Walk the Vanished Earth, just came out in this summer (2022) and is magnificently wonderful.

According to your bio, you were born and raised in Southern California, and you’ve lived in Ecuador, England, and six U.S. states. Which of these places has influenced your work most—and which body of water?

This is too tough! Like asking a parent to choose their favorite child! Every place I’ve lived so far has resulted in at least one piece of fiction, and I always feel the place I just left inspires me the most. In terms of water, that’s easier. As a child, the ocean entered my heart and has refused to leave. I used to be more judgmental about oceans; I thought there could be no better coast than SoCal’s Pacific, but as I’ve moved around a bit more, I’ve discovered that really my favorite ocean is the one I can currently dip my toes into. I find there’s something so calming about the coast, and so humbling. There’s no better place to be reminded of our own beautiful smallness.

What strikes you, in writing and in editing, as most sacred?

Kindness in all endeavors. In our writing, we should portray all that is human and nonhuman with the diligence and precision and nuance and glory that they deserve. In editing, we should help our writers do this, and employ processes that nourish and help writers flourish.

Lightning round

Sweet or savory? Savory, then sweet
Hoppy beers or sour beers? The more hops the better
Sunglasses or sunhat? Sunglasses
Backstroke or freestyle? Backstroke
Conservation or preservation? Both!
Pencil or pen? Pen
Hot spring or freezing lake? Freezing lake
Latin name or common? Common
Backpack or briefcase? Backpack
Hardcover or paperback? Paperback
Sunrise or sunset? Sunset