Danielle Susi with Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein
Leigh Stein

In 2002, Leigh Stein dropped out of high school. In 2007, she moved to Albuquerque, where she wrote much of her first novel, The Fallback Plan, released by Melville House in 2012. In that same year her first book of poems, Dispatch from the Future, was also released. In May of 2014 the “Binders Full of Women Writers” Facebook group was established by Anna Fitzpatrick, who wanted an easy way to connect all the writers she knew. Now, the group exists as a resource for writers of all backgrounds and experience levels to connect, network, ask questions, learn from one another. As a member of this group, Stein saw a need to extend this online communication into face-to-face interaction. Along with co-chair Lux Alptraum and many other women, Stein birthed BinderCon: a symposium to empower women and gender non-conforming writers with tools, connections, and strategies to advance their careers. The first BinderCon took place in New York in October of 2014, and another is set to take place in late March of 2015 in Los Angeles. Stein and I discussed the motivation behind BinderCon, sexism in the literary world, and the power of the Internet.

Danielle Susi: So the Binders Full of Women Writers Facebook group basically exploded overnight last year, and now this sort of community exists in “real life” as BinderCon. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was that drove you and the other organizers to create this event?

Leigh Stein: The Facebook group only started in May [2014]. I had the idea for the conference in July, after seeing so many women make awesome connections, and pitch the big leagues, with the support and enthusiasm of all these other writers behind them. I wanted to harness that enthusiasm, and bring those connections to a real-life forum. About 30 women volunteered to help me and my co-chair Lux Alptraum organize BinderCon in three months. It was important to us to include a multi-faceted representation of diversity in our programming, and almost fifty percent of our speakers were women of color. We also awarded 32 scholarships to women and gender non-conforming writers from across the country. I’m really proud of our speed pitch event, for which I actively went after magazines that did the poorest in the VIDA counts. We had the Executive Editor of Harper’s participate, along with over twenty other editors and literary agents.

DS: Three months is such a short duration! I think it’s worth talking about how you targeted the magazines that did the poorest in the VIDA counts because every year that list comes out and it’s always obvious that something should be done to change it, but this speed pitch event actually set out to change that. Do you think these BinderCon events in NYC and LA will have an affect on the coming year’s VIDA counts? Or on the writing industry in general?

LS: When putting together BinderCon, we didn’t want to just get women in a room together to complain about how depressing things are. Lux and I tried to think of all the ways to explain the byline gender disparity, and how we could address it: are women insecure and afraid of rejection? We had a licensed social worker lead a workshop on that. Are women not pitching enough, or not pitching the big leagues when they should be? We held two workshops on Saturday about pitching editors and querying agents, and then the speed pitch event on Sunday, to put that mini-education into action.

Over the summer, I’d written to editors at Harper’s and The Atlantic and New York Review of Books and said, “One of our goals for the conference is to give women the tools and connections they need to advance their careers, and get more bylines, especially in outlets that have historically been dominated by male voices.” My boyfriend said, “I can’t believe you said that!” That I named the problem. That the problem was the reason they were getting the invitation. Harper’s and The Atlantic were super enthusiastic and supportive. I never heard back from the NYRB. 

I hope the work we’re doing is reflected in future editions of the counts. For the LA conference, we’ve just started working with Katie Orenstein of the Op Ed Project, which does incredible work through seminars and mentorship to “increase the number of women thought leaders,” and collects and analyzes data. They’re years ahead of us, but a great model of what we could strive for, as far as proving BinderCon success through better pie charts.

DS: I like this idea and phrasing of “increas[ing] the number of women thought leaders.” And I think it’s great that you identified the problem. I think more and more women and editors are being open and transparent about this disparity. Is there a way for women who can’t attend the conferences to gain access to this information about pitching and getting over the potential fear of rejection?

LS: We filmed all the BinderCon panels, and anyone can buy a pass to get access (they are password-protected). As we grow the organization, we’re always having conversations about how to increase access to what we’re doing. In the future, this could mean livestreaming a conference, additional workshops in NYC on a monthly basis, and/or providing access to the video archive so women can organize their own meetups in different cities and watch the panel(s) together. Above all, we seriously consider all constructive feedback! As I type this, we’re only five months old. So when someone says, “Have you thought of X?” it’s great because I’m like, Wow…not yet! But feedback that sounds like, “Why aren’t you doing Y?” I’m like hold your horses, we’re still babies! We’re still learning. We started from scratch in July 2014.

DS: I think it’s so great that it came together so quickly. As a female writer, where do you see yourself in all of this? Your novel and your collection of poems were both released in 2012. That’s an incredible feat. How are you finding time to continue writing and to serve as an advocate and organizer?

LS: I’ve experienced sexism in the literary community, in the publishing arena, and in the alt-lit community online. I’ve fought tiny battles over the past couple years (telling my publisher not to put a headless woman on the cover of my novel, calling out HTMLGiant on the site’s pervasive misogyny) and BinderCon evolved as a synthesis of my feminist values and an online community of writers (the Facebook binders) who support and challenge me.

I’ve always been motivated by a challenge. I like learning how to do the thing I don’t already know how to do, so as a poet I learned to write a novel, and as a novelist I learned to write a memoir, and then I organized a conference by daring myself to do it. I want to finish my memoir in 2015, and after that I have an idea for a screenplay. My new year’s resolution is “Me first.” Lux and I organized BinderCon as volunteers, and there were weeks when I was working 8-12 hours a day/7 days a week to pull it off. It was incredibly exciting and rewarding, but I wasn’t able to do much other paid work during that time, and my credit card balances look a little scary. In 2015, I need to prioritize my own work/writing, or else this passion project won’t be sustainable.

DS: That makes complete sense. You can’t act as an advocate for women writers if you yourself have to put writing on the back burner. Maybe you can talk a little more about the sexism you’ve experienced. I know the alt-lit community has suffered greatly from it, especially regarding rape accusations against a few authors/editors.

LS: Yes, exactly! Thank you. I followed the news of the allegations in the alt-lit community closely, and I didn’t say anything publicly for fear of being misrepresented as a victim blamer, but what was so sad to me, in watching these stories unfold, was realizing that some women are going to be remembered only as victims, and not for their creative work. The men accused of abuse get to keep their writing careers (I just saw Gregory Sherl’s book on a table yesterday at Barnes & Noble). And I’m not saying that we should ruin these men’s lives (they’ve only been convicted by an online court of public opinion), but I am saying it’s sad that I know some women writers only as “the woman who accused X of Y” and not as “the author of such-and-such.” With all that being said, I think I’d rather not give you a grocery list of the everyday sexism I’ve experienced in publishing, because I’d like to be known for my work, and not for what’s been done to/said about me.

DS: Of course. And you’re right, that is the really sad realization of women in writing who need their voices to be heard about something else. Basically their work is washed away and they become the face of accusation.

From the original Binders group on Facebook to what you described perfectly as “an online court of public opinion,” it seems like the only way we can build community (or destroy it) is via the internet. Do you feel like online media plays a critical role in your writing or the publicity of your work? Or maybe that you’ve found specific community there beside the Binders group?

LS: Great questions. I said this in my opening remarks at BinderCon, but I’ve been making friends on the Internet since 1997. First it was a Francesca Lia Block fan club listserv, then Livejournal, now Twitter. Online forums are perfect for writers, who communicate best by…you know, writing. I’d honestly rather sit at home all day long and email and tweet with my friends than get dressed and go to a reading or a party. Which makes me wonder why I pay so much to live in Brooklyn! I could live in a shack with Internet access and never get lonely. (At least that’s what I tell myself.)

DS: Ha! Do you feel like your work would be different without access to those online communities? 

LS: Yes, because through these communities I’ve found two things vital to my work: 1) friends who are readers/editors, and 2) reading recommendations! Kate Zambreno, Roxane Gay, Chelsea Hodson, Patricia Lockwood–all writers I originally discovered/met online. But this will also reveal my bias towards reading contemporary work… 

DS: Well it makes sense! It’s certainly become easier to discover contemporary work through contemporary media.

In closing, I’d love to know where you see your work–your influence–in twenty years.

LS: Oh boy. Right now feels like such a perilous time to be a writer–I don’t mean as a woman, I mean any kind of writer–because of the changing media landscape/the amount of content that needs to be churned out to feed the beast and the resulting low rates paid to writers and editors. I don’t know what the future will bring, but I hope that part of my legacy will be an inspiration to anyone working outside the system. I published two books and worked at the New Yorker without an MFA or even a BA (I later finished my bachelors at the age of 28). There are so many paths to becoming a writer, I don’t think young people should have to go into serious debt to get the credentials that make them eligible to even apply for an elite unpaid internship…this is turning into a rant. But I hope someday I’m making a living off my work, and that my career path will serve as an example of the possibilities of DIY.

Danielle Susi is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, The Rumpus, Lines+Stars, DIALOGIST, and Midway Journal, among many others. Recently, Newcity named her among the Top 5 Emerging Chicago Poets. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.

Leigh Stein is the author of a novel, THE FALLBACK PLAN, and a book of poems, DISPATCH FROM THE FUTURE. She is also the creator of BinderCon, a professional development conference for/by/on women and gender non-conforming writers. Follow her @rhymeswithbee

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