I recently had the opportunity to speak with Tethered by Letters’ founder and CEO, Dani Hedlund.
Dani discussed the inception of Tethered by Letters and its various imprint projects. She noted generational differences in achieving success in the literary field, expressing that she looks forward to seeing the accomplishments of young Millennials. We also discussed the way politics, literature, and art go hand-in-hand, as well as our generation’s drive for activism and its positive impact on art. From there, Dani described how TBL and its tri-annual print publication, F(r)iction, strive to battle a “boys’ club” mentality in the literary world. Finally, we spent some time on TBL’s Frames program, in which Dani and her team work with women in the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.
I hope you enjoy this conversation!
Sarah Batcheller: I want to thank you again for taking the time to speak with me. The MFA community at Mason are huge fans of F(r)iction and we’re grateful for organizations like Tethered by Letters.
Dani Hedlund: That’s great to hear, thank you.
SB: TBL celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. What memories and other experiences stand out for you from the last ten years?
DH: Wow, I can’t believe we’re getting close to ten years. As many long-time followers of Tethered by Letters know, this company started as an impossible pipe dream. I founded it when I was nineteen. I had, in my teenage years, written a very bad book about quantum physics and it went through the publication ringer, so it was very important for me to try to create a community with resources and industry connections for new writers, especially young writers.
Back then, the internet was not fully functioning, and finding good resources about publishing—that were also free—was relatively impossible. I really wanted to create an online, free community that anyone—in any area of the world—could join, with real resources that didn’t inflate writers’ egos or take their money. That was the intention. I remember thinking, “Well, it should be a nonprofit because we’re not going to make money.” I didn’t know anything about nonprofits—I was nineteen! I remember the first time I went to the IRS website. The information for a 501(c)(3) filing is hundreds of pages. I was like, “Okay, I don’t know anything about this, but it can’t be that hard, right?”
The same thing occurred when we started the literary journal. I thought, “How hard can it be? People write good stories all the time and we put them on the internet.” Every time we start a new resource—even very recent things, like going into the prison system—the same mentality is there. At TBL, we all joke that our motto is, “Is that a terrible idea? We should do it!”
SB: You’ve spoken before about how much the world of literary publishing has changed since the 90s. Why do you think the industry has become flooded with so many authors and so many pieces of work?
DH: There are two large factors. One of them is, of course, production and resource space. We’ve seen a huge emergence of self-publishing and indie publishing in the industry. Publishing is also much cheaper now; the moment print-on-demand became a thing in the late 90s, it changed the way people thought about publishing. Back when independent publishers could start publishing houses, they typically had to order a minimum of a hundred books, sometimes thousands. And if they didn’t sell them, they lost their money.
When people started thinking, “It’s really no financial hardship for me to print and distribute a book,” the industry transformed. There was no longer a need for full support before moving forward with a project. We live in a very different culture now. I spend a lot of time with the Baby Boomers; my primary donor base comes from them. That generation believes they need affirmation from the rest of the world before they do something; they need a marketing portfolio, they need investors, and they need backing to move forward with a project.
Millennials are much more self-assured; they feel like if they write something, people will come. So, when you combine these different mindsets, you get different voices screaming at the same time. And that’s not to say that Millennials are bad writers or the Baby Boomers are better. It’s just to say that the market has become flooded with these voices.
With that change, there is a larger pressure on publishing presses to make sure they stand out. Honestly, people hear “indie” in front of something and they immediately shut down. They think, “No sales.” They think, “No marketability.” There are so many independent presses and literary journals that are publishing some amazing work. But it’s hard not to get a bad rep from everyone else who is screaming into the void.
SB: As a Millennial writer myself, I never considered these different mindsets. I just assumed that the literary community shifts its mentality as one entity. I never thought about these two particular things working for and against each other.
DH: I’m on the older end of the Millennial culture, and there’s a lot of gung-ho entitlement without much to back it up. But with the younger Millennials—which I recently realized after hiring them in the last couple of years—there’s much more empowerment, there’s much more activism. They have a lot more follow-through in their projects and goals. It’s really nice to see that kind of general empowerment—having something important to say, coupled with the resources and the drive to say it. I’m really excited to see what the next wave of literature will be like. I think it’s going to be really powerful.
SB: Activism is really huge in the literary world right now. Our recent political climate has caused major conversation in the writing community. What impact do you think politics have had—or may have—on the world of literature in the United States?
DH: This is something I’ve always been interested in because we have a large international base for Tethered by Letters. For over seven years, we’ve had a strong base in the UK, and in the UK, literature and politics go hand-in-hand. There is not a single interview I have ever attended, conducted, or heard on the telly or radio, where the author doesn’t spend at least a third of the time talking about the current political climate. They are very interwoven. As a general readership, people in the UK are very interested in politics, and that is something we have been bereft of in the States until recently. I’m excited to see a political swing encompassing intelligent, art-based people who are interested in the political system.
SB: What would be your advice for emerging writers as they develop their work in this political climate?
DH: As a publisher, my advice is to create a unique space in the market. I can’t keep publishing similar works. As an editor, I’m always thinking, “When am I going to get something new?” For those who are very passionate about the current political field and would like to write about it, I’d advise them to look for new angles. When I lecture in high schools, people will often pitch the same stories. This is because we only have a certain number of high school experiences in privileged America. There are things like, “I don’t feel understood,” or “I don’t feel loved,” or “My parents are getting divorced.” And I always think, “If that’s the thing that’s truest to you and you really need to write it, then put it on the moon. Put it in a circumstance that is new!”
We’re being culture-shocked together as a unit, and we’re all having very similar experiences. The best writers and the worst writers are all writing about the same sort of state. But there are so many ways to tell old stories in new ways. Find a way to make your narrative new and different.
SB: I am curious as to what makes a submission stand out when you and your team are selecting work for F(r)iction.
DH: F(r)iction was founded after we received several amazing stories that were just a bit too weird for the traditional literary publisher that we’d always been. These stories had sci-fi elements, or fantasy elements, or they were just too long, or the writing was experimental. That wasn’t the sort of publisher we had proclaimed ourselves to be. It wasn’t what I had fundraised for, and it certainly wasn’t what our subscribers had signed up for. Our hands were tied as editors and publishers, and it just broke my heart. When we founded F(r)iction, we wanted to say, “To hell with it!”
We want to publish great stories, regardless of whether they’re a little too weird, too long, too experimental; we want to publish the stories that tear their way out of the author, even when the author’s brain is saying, “Oh my God, no one’s ever going to publish this, leave it alone, God stop writing it.”
Friction is a weird sort of publication with regard to curating work and accepting submissions. One of the things that we really look for in terms of content is work that surprises us. You look at a story and you start reading it, and it seems like the same tropes that you understand. You know where the story is going. And then something weird or unsettling starts bleeding in from the corners of the story—I love that. I love when I feel like my world is being turned upside down just a bit.
I love beautiful language. Any time a prose writer tells me that he or she used to be a poet, I’m excited. I often think back to what it was like at eleven or twelve years old, that first time we really fall in love with stories. I know that the most pretentious of us want to say, “Oh yes, I read Foucault or Dostoyevsky when I was eleven or twelve, and I just knew I wanted to be a literary fiction critic!” But no, we were reading things that simply captured our imaginations and transported us to new places. That’s what I want for us as adults: stories that transport us but also contain gorgeous, subtle language. That’s an ideal submission for me.
SB: Since So to Speak is an intersectional feminist literary journal, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you think the literary worlds could do better in terms of representing diverse voices.
DH: This is hopefully a topic that is on the mind of all small business owners, editors, and publishers. How do we make sure that we’re representing diverse voices?
Currently, we’re about 50% men and 50% women, which is good. But that’s not enough when we’re trying to broaden the conversation, so we’re always trying to dig into the community and make sure there are new voices that we’re helping to unearth.
One of the ways we try to ensure that F(r)iction and Tethered by Letters are places where everyone feels comfortable is by focusing on the staff. I try to create the most diverse editorial team I can get my hands on, and that’s not just in terms of women and men and people of color, but also religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and perspectives.
When I’m creating an editorial board, I want to make sure that everything is being looked at and nothing is being ignored. I look for editors with exceptional taste in literature, weird taste in literature, stylistic preferences that fit with our F(r)iction mission. I look to see whether we all jive together as a team, which is so important in the creation of arts. It’s a difficult balance, but I’m very proud of F(r)iction and how hard we strive for this.
It’s a battle with submissions as well. As everyone in the literary world knows, close to 80% of submissions are from white men. Those are the people that have the cultural backing to think, “If I spend several hours pouring my heart on a page, it’s going to be worthy enough to send out.” And the statistics are fascinating. Men are so much more likely to re-submit to a literary journal that has rejected them or to an agent who has rejected them. We get so few female re-submitters, even though we really try to create an anchor for them, sending out emails that encourage these writers to try again.
So it’s difficult, making sure that our story and our publications are always diversified. But that’s one of the reasons why F(r)iction focuses on really important humanity partners in every single issue. We work with the Afghan Women’s Writing program, we work with veteran programs. We also work with really great art organizations that go into lower-income neighborhoods outside of New York and specialize in young female writers. We try to bring in outside solicitors if TBL can’t cultivate diversity on its own because this is so important to me as a publisher. Every time someone picks up an issue of F(r)iction, I want there to be a very wide spectrum of voices on the page.
SB: Let’s talk about TBL’s Frames program. I’ve watched the daily recaps on the website, and I could talk about this all day! How do you think the women in the program benefit from working in a group setting?
DH: I actually thought that the group setting wouldn’t work well when we first started the program. The training that Leah and I went through spent a great deal of time talking about how several of the offenders—which is the official term for them, though it sounds very odd rolling off the tongue—might use the group setting as a way to play mind games on the teachers, or how they might try to assert control over one another. I also thought there would be a good amount of exaggeration in their stories, increasing the violence in order for people to think they were bad***** who were not to be f***** with.
But the women in our course are amazing! They were very respectful of each other’s time. They are all very hungry to talk. It’s clear that they’re very lonely, and this is the most attention they’ve received about any aspect of their lives, really. They’re very respectful to each other, they use group time incredibly well, and they share their stories. They’re really good storytellers—they make each other laugh, make each other cry—and it’s amazing to behold. Getting them together and creating a sense of community that’s expressed through storytelling is one of the best things we’ve ever done.
SB: In the latest recap, you were describing one student who wrote about not having close family ties, and really not having that family closeness until she came to the facility and met somebody who had invited her to her first Christmas. It was then that she really felt like part of a community—and a family—for the first time.
DH: That story is so exceptional, and the woman is very interesting. As she came in and started describing her life, it was clear that she had a poetry background. Words like “broken,” “shattered,” “lonely,”—she just kept repeating them over and over again, no matter how many times Leah and I would say, “Tell me what that setting looks like,” or “Tell me about the people who were involved.” Those were the words she could grasp on to.
It’s really intense for me to realize how much I don’t understand about why these ladies have ended up there. The training didn’t prepare me for things like women telling me that they’re grateful for being in prison because it’s the first time they’ve felt safe. Or telling me how grateful they are to be getting food every day. Or to have a bed to sleep on. Many of them struggle with addiction, and this is the only time they’ve been able to get away from the terrible circumstances that pushed their addiction—the only way they’ve been able to get sober. I had never thought that someone would come up to me in the prison system and say, “You know, Ms. Hedlund, I’m so grateful for my sentence.” It was really, really eye-opening for me.
SB: The genre you’re working with—the graphic novel—opens up this opportunity to really blend fiction and nonfiction. How have you seen that working in the program?
DH: It’s been great. I was shocked when we walked in on the first day and asked, “How many of you have read a comic or a graphic novel?” and every single hand went up. And the demographic we’re working with is 19-year-olds to 80-something-year-olds of every race!
These ladies voraciously read just about everything in the library, and several of them are incredibly artistically inclined so they really enjoyed the drawing aspect as well as being able to unearth these moments in their lives. And for the people that are afraid of drawing, well, the moment I started drawing on the board they were like, “Well, if our teacher sucks at it, it’s fine if we do.” Even the very basic drawings—like stick figures—really helped them figure out how to pace a story and how to move characters around, especially for people that didn’t have a strong basis in writing. I honestly think that we wouldn’t have been able to get these amazing stories without that element.
SB: Can you tell us a little bit about the inception of the program and how it came to fruition?
DH: About two years ago, the librarian at the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, Stacy McKenzie, approached me about whether Tethered by Letters would be interested in working in the prison. We’ve done a whole bunch of lectures in high schools and colleges since our inception, so we certainly have a strong teaching background. But I didn’t know anything about the prison system. Our mantra at TBL seems to be, “Does that sound like a crazy idea? We should do it!” And that’s exactly what I said.
We started to think about the kind of program we would run. Since TBL’s foundation has been built upon the notion of helping others tell prose and poetry stories, our thoughts immediately headed in that direction. But then I started looking at the statistics regarding illiteracy. It’s crazy—more than 80% of incarcerated people in the US struggle with literacy, and more than 45% are functionally illiterate. I have a girl in my class who was illiterate until she came to prison. She learned to read in prison, and now she’s starting to get a Master’s Degree.
There are so many people who go into the prison programs thinking, “Let’s pat ourselves on the back for doing good work and helping a disenfranchised population.” But then they just leave and there’s no impact. I didn’t want that.
I want to make sure that we help these ladies change the way they think about themselves and about the world. I want to make palpable changes and help them get degrees—whether in or out of prison—and assist them upon release, certainly pay them for their work. Allowing them to see the fruits of their labor, enabling them to feel pride in themselves, seeing these ladies cry in our individual settings and say, “Is there a book? Can I send it to my mom?” It’s so important. For us and for them.
SB: How have you and Leah seen the teacher-student relationship evolve over time?
DH: Honestly, a big part of the training for us was learning not to get attached to the offenders. If you’re going to teach art, you need to get emotionally intimate with your students because art is difficult. Art pours out of you, and sometimes it feels like you’re losing parts of your organs on the page! It’s very painful, so the idea that Leah and I needed to be standoffish with these girls was difficult for us to conceptualize.
These women are afraid to tell their stories—they are very personal. A lot of them are dealing with an enormous amount of repression. The fact that they have been brave enough to unearth these things…Wow. I have one girl who’s writing home to her home tribe—she’s Omaha Native American—to make sure that she’s getting all of the details right. And one of my other girls is calling her husband so he can drive out to some of the spots that her story took place and take photos.
They are all so excited, but every single one of them has cried in front of me. Every single one of them has said, “I haven’t spoken about this in years.” For them to be that brave and open, and for Leah and I to be expected to think of them as nameless students with numbers printed on the front of their shirts? I just can’t think that way.
SB: Tethered by Letters has grown so much over the years. Now that you have international offices and partnerships with other great nonprofits, what’s next for TBL? What do you imagine for the next ten years?
DH: That’s a tricky one. I’ve always wanted TBL to be a jumping-off point for creatives. I have always worked with authors and artists, advocating for them: helping them get their query letters ready, then helping them decide which agents to send it to. We get about 12 book deals a year that we do on the back end, and we don’t charge for it. We’re just helping writers get to where they need to be, whether or not that’s getting an agent or a book deal.
What I’m seeing now is that F(r)iction gets more attention. One of our F(r)iction comic creators called me up frantically just last week to say that someone—a top New York literary agent(!)—had read F(r)iction and loved her work. He asked to sign her and she was just over-the-moon with excitement!
I have this very distinct memory of being nineteen years old and thinking, “This is what I want.” I wanted to create something with quality work—something people would actually read!—so that if we took a chance on a new creator—a debut talent that no one else had ever taken a chance on—that would make an agent say, “Let’s make this person’s career happen.” That, for me, is amazing, but it only helps the people who get published in F(r)iction. If F(r)iction gets to the level where every single one of our authors gets an agent, that would be great!
I also want to make sure that we’re opening up resources for everyone else. We’re starting an insider section of the website where we’re going to have agents, editor, publicists, film directors, and people that option films do interviews and workshop query letters. This will be a huge avenue for writers trying to figure out how to take that next step. We want them to have actual access to information.
I’d also like us to spend a good amount of time focusing on general readership. People are very obsessed with their 140-character Tweets, but very un-obsessed with sitting down for a couple of hours in silence and reading a good book. If we want to keep thriving and we want to keep helping writers, we’re going to have to keep ensuring that people are reading their stories. We’re working on a lot of programs, putting together festivals about reading programs to get people engaged with literature. For lack of a better word, we want to make reading cool again.
As we grow, I hope that we can open up the world a little bit for weirder fiction, and create a bit more open-mindedness about this blend between literary fiction and genre fiction. We’ll keep finding projects we shouldn’t say no to. Instead, we’ll say, “That’s a terrible idea… why don’t we do it?”
SB: I have one last question. Are you working on any of your own projects right now?
DH: I try. You will be unsurprised to hear that the CEO of an international conglomerate is an 80-hours-a-week sort of fiasco. I still write. I publish a couple short works every year but that mostly is just distracting me from finishing up a novel that I’ve been working on for flipping eons. I’m going to dedicate more to that. Also, because I’m a total idiot, I started a board game company about Brexit.
SB: That’s amazing!
DH: Unfortunately, my entire life is lived by the TBL mantra, so I’m constantly saying that I’m going to do things I don’t have time for. I don’t know how to half-ass, and I’m doing professional-quality everything. That’s a problem, Sarah, but I’m going to try and calm down. That’s a good goal—sleep at night and maybe remember to exercise.
After the publication of her first novel at the age of eighteen, Dani Hedlund founded the international literary nonprofit, Tethered by Letters (TBL). Over the course of the last decade, TBL has grown into one of the largest independently-funded literary nonprofits in the nation, with bases across the US, UK, and Southeast Asia. She is also the founder and Editor-in-Chief of F(r)iction, an art and literary collection specializing in boundary-defying work. Since its inception in 2015, F(r)iction has risen to critical acclaim, becoming one of the fastest growing literary journals in the world. In her ever-elusive free time, Dani lectures about the ins-and-outs of the publishing industry, writes very weird fiction, and runs a strange little board game company called Bad Hipster Games.