Department of English

Rising Senior Kelsey McKinney puts her literary knowledge to work

Fri, June 21, 2013
Rising Senior Kelsey McKinney puts her literary knowledge to work
Photograph of Kelsey McKinney by Elisabeth Dillon; cover of Mrs. Dalloway

As Kelsey McKinney sees it, “Mrs. Dalloway is not a book you ever finish feeling.”  Tapping into her literary studies as a Plan II Honors student at the University of Texas at Austin, McKinney recently published a story in Slate magazine’s culture blog titled “Why doesn’t Mrs. Dalloway get a day of her own?”  The piece centers around a growing movement to celebrate Virginia Woolf’s stream of conscience masterpiece alongside James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is celebrated annually on Bloomsday, a June 16 holiday named for Joyce’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom.  Ultimately, McKinney suggests that Bloomsday is really a “celebration of survived suffering” for those who have completed the notoriously difficult Ulysses, something unnecessary for a book like Dalloway, which reads easily, but “lingers long after the last page is turned.”

In addition to freelance writing in her spare time, McKinney is hard at work at a 12-week internship with Reader’s Digest in New York City.  Her work with the magazine is a continuation of the editing and journalism she has done as a UT student.  McKinney had her first taste of the field as a public affairs intern for the Harry Ransom Center, an experience she described in an e-mail as “the first stepping stone to journalism.”  After publishing her first byline piece in UT’s alumni magazine, The Alcalde, where she was working as an editorial intern, she went on to serve as the editor of the Life & Arts section of The Daily Texan.  In that position, she “curated and edited about 35 articles a week, and wrote when [she] could.”  Next year, her last at UT, McKinney will be an associate managing editor for online content at the Texan, where she will likely put the skills she is earning this summer to good use.

Find out more about her current work, her ambitions for future, and her Slate piece in the Q & A below.

Q & A

What are you studying at UT and what year are you in?

I am a rising senior at UT and plan to graduate in May of 2014. I am a Plan II Honors major and have focused my studies on American History, Literature, and Art History. 

What drew you to the Reader’s Digest internship?  How did you find out about it?

My internship is through the American Society of Magazine Editors, which is like the Tonys of feature writing. I learned about the internship by happenstance, and applied because it's a very select group composed of very passionate people who all love to write, and read, and edit. I wanted to spend my summer in New York, and I wanted to spend it being pushed by people who were better than me. 

What have you learned so far from the internship?  What kinds of experience are you gaining?

So far I've learned a lot about creating content that is engaging and curating it to a very specific audience. We talk a lot of about what magazines look like going forward into an increasingly digital world, and how we manipulate our work to prepare for that. I don't write very much for Reader's, but I'm attending plenty of meetings and learning a lot about the production of the magazine. 

Where are you living in New York?

I'm living in the East Village, which is adorable. I'm right near Union Square so the trains are very convenient, and I can get anywhere pretty quickly. Also the East Village is full of stellar restaurants and is definitely a place I won't be able to afford to live permanently in the future. So it's great for now. 

What’s the most interesting thing you've seen or done in the city so far?

I attended a launch party at The Paris Review that was really great. I spent the whole night with fifty people who are beyond passionate about literature and thrilled to talk about it. 

What is a launch party at The Paris Review like?  Can you set the scene a little?  

The Paris Review threw a party in honor of the launch of their new Summer issue. The office is in Chelsea up a trendy flight of wood paneled stairs in a room with one exposed brick wall. In the middle are two massive shelves with every issue of the Paris Review ever published. In between the shelves two men both taller than 6 feet with gelled mustaches pour drinks at an open bar; the men are all drinking Boston Lager or straight whiskey dependent on how romanticized their view of Hemingway is, and the women are all drinking a red wine that Lorin--the editor-in-chief--chose. Most of the women are at least 10 years younger than most of the men. The back room, Loren's office, is the smoking room. In there, I talk to the men who run Radio Lab, and even Lorin himself. B.J. Novak stands in the corner making awkward eye contact with everyone at the party. 

Did you pitch the Bloomsday v. Dallowayday piece?  What prompted it?

I did. I had a friend at Slate who encouraged me to pitch something. I was re-reading Mrs. Dalloway in Central Park when I started thinking about how much it has in common with Ulysses. A lot of that information ended up in my piece. Bloomsday was approaching and there's nothing a good editor loves more than a timely story, so I pitched it immediately. That was last Thursday. I wrote the piece over the weekend, and it went live after revisions on Tuesday. I have Dr. Mia Carter to thank immensely, as she poked 100 holes in my first draft. I was sitting there on my bed thinking "oh my god, this doesn't make any sense," but what she said was perfect. Her comments helped me hone my argument and really craft it into something publishable. 

What do you hope to accomplish in your remaining time at UT?

Oof. I really don't like to think of how little time I have left at UT. My last year is going to be a bit crazy. I'm writing a thesis that I'm absolutely thrilled about, so I'm hoping to finish that. Additionally, I'm returning to the Texan this year as an associate managing editor for online content, which will give me the opportunity to revamp our online game. I guess those are the two biggest things. 

What is your thesis work on?  How are you going about your project?

I'm writing a biography of Harry Huntt Ransom, who is the man who founded the Ransom Center and really placed Texas on the cultural map. I'm working mainly with oral histories of people who knew Ransom, and his personal archive housed in the Center. Thus far, the best part of my work is when these men in their 90's call me to tell me something they're afraid they'll forget. You'd be amazed how many thesis notes I have scribbled on bar napkins and restaurant receipts. 

What goals do you have for revamping the "online game" of the Texan?

Right now at the Texan, we make decisions and plans based on our print product. My job is to change the way we plan. We, as an organization, have to start thinking about what we do online as carefully as we think about what we do in the paper. 

Do your passions lie on the editing or writing side of journalism?  Both?  Where do you see yourself headed?  Why?

I love editing and writing for completely different reasons, but I don't think you can do either without the other. In order to be a great writer, you have to understand what an editor is looking for and how they work so that you can learn to edit your own work. Likewise, being a writer helps me edit. I understand how attached I am to words, so I'm careful when I edit. At the same time, I understand the constraints of voice and space, and am willing to work within those when I write. I'm hoping to do both in the future. Writing is a more romantic career, but it's also much less stable. 

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