KaToya Ellis Fleming and author Sarah M. Broom at the Oxford American’s South Words series. Photo credit: Brian Chilson at the Arkansas Times
KaToya Ellis Fleming, Lookout Books’ new editor, first encountered the editorial process the way a lot of writers do—out of personal necessity. She identifies as an “obsessive self-editor.” While she didn’t necessarily intend to pursue editing in a professional capacity, an enthusiastic aptitude bloomed as a byproduct of digging deeper and more critically into her own work.
“I used to be afraid of being edited so I wanted to know what the process looked like from the other side,” she says. “I took every opportunity to learn about all the moving parts in the editorial process, from acquisitions to copyediting and everything in between, merely to demystify the editing process for myself and improve my own work. But I discovered a passion for helping stories—and not just my own—be the best they could be.”
Fleming’s abiding admiration for indie presses put Lookout on her radar, but its mission and devotion to teaching the art and craft of publishing made her certain the imprint would be a fulfilling home base. “There’s something particularly special about an indie press, housed at a university with a publishing program and a roster of bright students who are an integral part of the publishing process,” she said.
There’s something particularly special about an indie press, housed at a university with a publishing program and a roster of bright students who are an integral part of the publishing process.”
Coupled with her role as editor at Lookout, Fleming joined UNCW’s Department of Creative Writing as an assistant professor of publishing arts in fall 2020. “I love the idea of a standalone creative writing program, one not housed within an English department, that teaches the fundamentals of publishing as a dedicated part of its curriculum. Students leave our program fully prepared to begin careers as published authors or industry professionals or both.”
A long admirer of Lookout’s vibrant backlist, Fleming says that her favorites include Clare Beams’ We Show What We Have Learned, a story collection she describes as an “imaginative work of feminist literature that’s darkly funny,” and Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, an example of “how a righteous gamble can pay off in amazing ways.”
What made Lookout the right fit for her as an editor, though, “particularly during this moment in our nation’s history, is its commitment to publishing authors who represent marginalized communities,” she says, “and being, as our mission states, ‘a haven for books that matter.’”
Of her vision for how Lookout can build on its dedication to debut and historically misrepresented voices, she says she is “excited to see our catalog come to reflect the diversity of the country and for Lookout to be a lighthouse for writers of color, and LGBTQ+ writers, and writers from myriad other groups who have been erased, unheard, or otherwise denied access to publishing. I look forward, as an editor, to discovering those voices and introducing them to a broad readership.”
I’m excited to see our catalog come to reflect the diversity of the country and for Lookout to be a lighthouse for writers of color, and LGBTQ+ writers, and writers from myriad other groups who have been erased, unheard, or otherwise denied access to publishing. I look forward, as an editor, to discovering those voices and introducing them to a broad readership.”
In terms of what she’s looking for, Fleming describes herself as a “sucker for lyrical prose and stories, be they fiction or nonfiction, that are unique and imaginative.” Beyond questions of form, she is drawn to writing that “speaks to this moment in a way that is both timely and timeless. We are living in a moment that is ripe for reckoning. To be able to capture that in a way that will live far beyond the moment—that’s a manuscript I’d like to see.”
Fleming says that in her short time at the imprint she has cherished working with publisher Emily Louise Smith and the students in the Lookout practicum. “We’ve gotten some really strong manuscripts by writers I am thrilled about the possibility of working with. I’m beyond excited about our next book.”
Fleming credits Toni Morrison—not just her work, but her journey as a writer and an editor—with shaping the way she thinks about the possibilities for her own career, as well as two academic mentors, Dr. Akiba Harper from Spelman College’s English department, and Valerie Boyd, the director of the MFA program at the University of Georgia.
Before coming to Lookout, Fleming served as an editor at the Oxford American magazine, where she also held the Jeff Baskin Writers Fellowship. Her colleagues there set the bar high, she says, for their dedication to substantive editing that often results in transformation. “They take such painstaking care with the stories they publish, and they have such an amazing bedside manner with their writers, whether they’re widely acclaimed or emerging. I’m lucky to have worked for a publication that approaches editing with the same kind of rigor and process that book-length projects require,” she says, noting that the Oxford American regularly publishes longform pieces, sometimes of 10,000 or more words, and book excerpts.
As part of her fellowship, Fleming was afforded time to continue working on her own debut book of creative nonfiction, a bibliomemoir titled Finding Frank, which the Arkansas Times calls “a work that explores Georgia novelist Frank Yerby’s relationship to his native Augusta against the backdrop of Fleming’s own connection to the city.” An excerpt, “You Never Can Tell About A River,” appears in the Spring 2020 issue of the Oxford American. More of Fleming’s writing is forthcoming in the Rumpus and other venues.
Thank you to Lookout staffer Daniel Grear for this profile.