Reading, writing, & romance: Literary power couples

Three couples share their secrets of collaborative success.
By Melissa Hart | Published: February 7, 2018


Author and chef Julia Child once said, “The secret of a happy marriage is finding the right person. You know they’re right if you love to be with them all of the time.” She and her husband, Paul, became culinary collaborators – she as cook and recipe writer, he as photographer, illustrator, taster, and kitchen designer.

What is it that enables some couples to work together so successfully? Contributing editor Melissa Hart caught up with three modern-day literary power couples who balance marriage, day jobs, and/or cats or kids with running small presses, literary magazines, and writing conferences.

 

Donna Talarico and Kevin Beerman: Separating personal from professional

Literary Power Couples: Donna Talarico and Kevin Beerman

Donna Talarico and Kevin Beerman met in college when she was a sophomore and he was a freshman. Fifteen years later, they married. They live in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they run Hippocampus Magazine as well as Hippocamp, an annual conference for writers of literary nonfiction.

Donna founded Hippocampus in 2011. “More than ever, women [now] have the permission to be entrepreneurs and to start businesses,” she says.

Kevin signed on to help when he noticed how much time she was putting into the magazine. “I thought it would be fun to do something together,” he says. “Maybe it was even more selfish than that – I knew if I helped her with the work, she’d be done early, and we could go hang out together.”

When they’re not working, they like to hang out at bars for trivia night or karaoke, and play board games with friends at home. They also adore traveling to see bizarre sights like the famed wood chipper in Fargo, N.D., and a Viking museum in Minnesota.

In 2015, Donna and Kevin drove halfway across the country together to represent Hippocampus at the AWP Conference, which was in Minneapolis that year. They took turns working at their informational table during the bookfair.

“To have me be able to step away from the table to walk around as the ‘writer me’ and have him hold down the fort and talk about the magazine was rewarding to him and made me value him as a true partner in this endeavor,” Donna says. “It solidified that we’re a team. And this might sound cheesy, but I think this is one of the things that keeps our relationship strong.”

 

How do you divide up the duties of Hippocampus Magazine and the writing conference?

Donna: All submissions go through Submittable, and I assign them to a volunteering reading panel. Once we select stories, I share them with Kevin so he can find pictures. And then I produce the issue. I handle the website formatting and the marketing; for every story, we do a couple of Facebook posts and a couple of tweets. For the conference, I work with the presenters and do the marketing and website. We use a project management software called Asana to keep all our tasks in order – it pings us and lets us know what we need to do each day.

Kevin: I’m the king of research. I find the MFA programs for potential conference sponsorships. I post to the literary and local event calendars, and organize and schedule all the volunteers. I make sure all the rooms are set up, and if there’s a problem, I’m the guy who’ll run and get water or a microphone.

 

Is the Hippocampus office in your home?

Donna: Our house is more like a storage closet with boxes of books from Hippocamp; it’s a bit overwhelming. Our apartment is relatively small. Now that we’re entering the third year of Hippocamp, we’re outgrowing our house. I rent a small office, so I have a place to go to. It’s nice to have a place that’s clutter-free. Kevin does a lot of work at home, though.

 

What’s the most challenging part about running the magazine and writing conference together?

Kevin: I keep quitting every week. Having to find a replacement is hard, so I have to sign back on. The biggest challenge is that I don’t want to disappoint Donna as both my spouse and my boss. It’s really difficult sometimes to have a professional relationship when it’s a personal relationship at the same time. When you’re working with your spouse, it’s hard to separate emotions from business. I don’t want to hurt her feelings. To be able to work with your wife is a blessing. It’s also revealing. I’m learning to cope better with criticism.

Donna: I have high expectations. Hippocampus isn’t a hobby for me; I have deadlines and processes in place that I try to adhere to. If you live with someone and you see that they’re watching TV, you might tell them, “You should be looking for photos now because you have spare time.” We might bicker for two hours, and it looks like a fight, but then one of us will say, “Hey do you want some pizza?” And the other will say, “Yeah, let’s go get some pizza.”

 

What advice do you have for other couples hoping to start a literary magazine or a conference?

Kevin: You’ve got to love what you’re doing because you have to be prepared to give up a lot of free time for the end result. Hippocampus is built on literary citizenship. You’re publishing people, cultivating and nurturing community. It requires much more than just finding and publishing stories. Once the issue is live, your work isn’t over.

Donna: From the beginning, set your boundaries and know that your roles and goals may evolve as the magazine takes off and gets bigger. Know when you’re talking business and when you’re talking personal life. Remember to take time for yourself and for each other. Have a good sense of humor. We take it seriously but not so seriously that we don’t have fun doing it. It is fun, and you’re making people happy. Be prepared to invest some money in the project as well. We’re putting our personal money into Hippocampus until it generates an income. Oh, and be prepared for the AWP conference to be your vacation.

 

 

Leesa Cross-Smith and Loran Smith: Developing a complementary work ethic

Literary Power Couples: Leesa Cross-Smith and Loran Smith

Leesa Cross-Smith and Loran Smith met in high school. They’ve been together 20 years, married for 15. Parents to two young children, they balance home life, carpools, and extracurricular activities with work on WhiskeyPaper, a five-year-old online literary magazine devoted to flash fiction. They also run a chapbook press of the same name.

The couple attributes their success to clearly delineated roles based on their individual strengths and the demands of their day jobs (he works for an insurance company, and she’s a homemaker and professional writer).

“I’m the boss,” Leesa says. “Loran works with me and does what I need him to do. We’re so opposite on almost everything; that’s why we make a good team.”

“We have complementary work ethics,” Loran adds. “If we were both laid back, nothing would ever get done. And if we were both workaholics, we’d burn out quickly.”

The couple lives in Kentucky, where they hope to retire someday and have a farm with baby goats. “WhiskyPaper’s not going to take us there, though,” Lisa says. “Never start a literary magazine for money. We make zero pennies. It’s a labor of love.”

 

What inspired you to start a literary magazine and chapbook press?

Loran: I grew up hanging around bookstores and seeing chapbooks that people created. Everything’s online now, but I wanted to create a paper chapbook with a seal on the back and physically send it to readers. People send pictures to us opening their mail and reading a physical book – it’s so satisfying.

Leesa: A lot of what’s published is weird and inaccessible and super-dark and depressing. I wanted to create a space to encourage light, hopeful stories for people who might be reading on their lunch break from a retail position at Target or somewhere – work that everyone could pick up and find accessible. We did a Kickstarter a couple of years and raised $1,000 to buy a nice printer and some supplies. Our contributors and readers are so supportive. We feel really blessed to find such an awesome, creative community.

 

How do you divide up the labor of the literary magazine and chapbook press?

Leesa: Loran does the design of the chapbooks and puts them together. He does really well with abstracts, and he blooms when he sits on something for a while and looks at it from all sides. I do the manuscript editing. I’m a do-er. Tell me exactly what you need, and I’ll get it done quickly.

 

What does your day-to-day life look like as a literary couple with children?

Leesa: We have a 10-year old boy and a 13-year old girl. We split the carpool; Loran does it in the morning, and I do it in the afternoon. During the day when we’re both working, a lot of times he’s working from home and we’re in separate rooms. I like to be back in the bedroom where I write on my bed. He prefers to work where he can see a window or go outside. After we pick up the kids, there’s homework, dinner, family time. I might ask them how they like a title of a piece, or we’ll print mockups of the chapbooks and ask them which they like the most. We have pretty full days.

 

How do you stay sane with so much going on?

Leesa: Take breaks. I used to work for a newspaper, 24/7. I’d stress myself out – wouldn’t even take off my birthday or Christmas. Loran’s great about encouraging me to take a break and chill out. He works in the corporate world. In that world, you have to take a break or people will run all over you. I’m a homemaker and writer on my own. I see a different type of hustle. I feel like if I’m working for myself, I can never take a break.

Loran: [We’re] not both writers in that world, I think that really helps as well. We come at the work from a different perspective. I’m not a writer, and I’m not in the literary world in the same way. I can come to it with an outside perspective, and possibly more energy, because I’m separate from it.

 

What advice do you have for couples wanting to launch a literary magazine and/or small press?

Leesa: Be super-picky about the authors you work with. You want to work with kind people, those willing to listen, to be receptive and put in hard work.

 

 

 

Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff: Playing to each other’s strengths

Carissa Halston and Randolph Pfaff met in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Moravian Book Shop when she was an employee and he came into to order a book. At just 23 years old, they co-founded Aforementioned Productions, a non-profit organization that publishes books and organizes literary events and theatrical performances. They’ve moved around some since then, finally landing in Boston.

Their books have received awards and honors from the Massachusetts Center for the Book, the New England Poetry Club, and the New York Book Festival. Recently, the Boston Cultural Council awarded them an organizational grant for literary events.

The couple also started apt, a literary magazine that began online in 2005 and moved to a hybrid print/online format six years later. Randolph works as a freelance writer and communications consultant in higher education, while Carissa is an editor and designer. She admits that they work a lot; even when she broke her leg, she sent out press releases for events while on heavy narcotics.

“Part of the success of our journal is that we’re both insane in a way that’s really complementary,” she explains.

 

What inspired you to start a literary magazine and small press?

Randolph: I was always enamored of the physical object and the idea of creating something from nothing. The experience of books was a big thing for me growing up. I remember Scholastic book fairs, filling out the little paper form for which books you wanted, and those huge metal folding bookshelves, all these books, the idea that they were suddenly there. And you could have them and read them – I wanted to create a thing that other people could hold and read and value.

 

Tell me about your apt and Aforementioned Productions workspace.

Randolph: We’ve moved a lot over the last 12 years. Our practice is to carve out space wherever we’re living. I’ve worked from home quite a few years now. Sometimes, we’ll work at home, and sometimes we’ll meet at a café or library to focus, away from distractions at home. Boston has an incredible library system, and there are so many civic spaces in this area, which help us to be in the city and around the people that make up this place.

Carissa: Every part of our home is an office. We’re always at home and always at work. We have one cat, Ezra. We like to joke that she’s our intern. We have this great collapsible table. It can be as small as six inches wide, or you could fit Thanksgiving dinner on it. If we’re having a preliminary meeting, ordering the pieces within a new issue of apt, we spread them out on the table because we’re both pretty visual. We write down titles of all of the pieces and shift things around. The table is our work station and meeting place.

 

How do you divide up the duties as editors of a literary magazine and small press?

Randolph: We figured out what we could do together and what our individual skills were. Then, we were able to say, “You do this part, I’ll do this part, we’ll do these parts together.” It’s fun because it’s a hybrid project. We have work that we do online and in print. There are different stages to it; we read submissions and talk about what we’re going to take versus what we won’t take and why. Then there’s editing, proofreading, and design. We have a similar appreciation for a certain kind of storytelling and form and structure in poetry, but when it comes to design, we have different tastes.

Carissa: I like layers and patterns and things in multiples, and Randolph likes Bauhaus and minimalism. We have to try to find a way to bring those together.

 

What’s the most challenging thing about editing a literary magazine and press?

Carissa: It’s a great amount of work. Issue three of apt was so incredibly hard. Issues one and two were fun, but Randolph told me after issue three, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore,” and I insisted that it would get better. Now, it’s a different kind of fun. It’s a huge part of our marriage and our relationship.

 

Any advice for couples wanting to start a literary magazine?

Randolph: Remember that the person you’re working with is someone you love and someone you respect, because it can be really easy, speaking from experience, to not treat that person the same way you treat a coworker because your relationship is deeper and more open.

Carissa: Have an aesthetic. We didn’t for a really long time, and now we have it on our website in about four different ways. Know in advance what you want to publish. Do you see a hole in publishing, in literature? If so, fill it. A lot of times, literary publishing can be really stodgy and straight-laced. Allow yourself to take risks. Have fun with it. Then you can do the thing that matters most to you.

 

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is co-founder, with her husband, Jonathan B. Smith, of Creator & Collector Services. Web: creatorcollector.com.

 

 

Want to improve your own writing?

Sign up for our newsletter to receive FREE articles, publishing tips, writing advice, and more delivered to your inbox once a week.

 

TW Freemium CoverLooking for an agent?

Download our free guide to finding a literary agent, with the contact information and submission preferences for more than 80 agencies.