Literary MagNet: Alex McElroy

Dana Isokawa
From the May/June 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In Alex McElroy’s satirical novel, The Atmospherians, published in May by Atria Books, two childhood friends—Sasha, a disgraced influencer for a lifestyle brand, and Dyson, a flailing actor struggling with an eating disorder—come together to create a cult for isolated, washed-up men. The novel, which is sly and uncanny and darkly funny, depicts the hypocrisies of the self-help industry, masculinity, and internet fame while rendering the shame and loneliness that undergird those hypocrisies. McElroy says they first explored many of the novel’s preoccupations in pieces they published in literary magazines. “They served as spaces where I could think through and develop my obsessions as a writer.” McElroy has published stories, essays, and criticism in dozens of outlets and has edited prose for Gulf Coast and Hayden’s Ferry Review.

Alex McElroy (Credit: Grace Rivera)

“Publishing in literary journals introduced me to the reality of writing toward an audience,” says McElroy. “Before I started submitting to journals, I primarily wrote for myself, which is great in some ways, but for me one of the joys of writing is sharing work and reaching readers. In order to do that, I needed to learn how to take my audience into account throughout my writing process—it wasn’t always about getting the piece perfect but about creating a story or essay that could communicate with readers.” One such journal that was part of McElroy’s path as a writer is the print annual Passages North, which McElroy says is “like the most-supportive older sibling. They have championed some of my strangest and most exciting pieces, and they do the same for all their contributors.” Edited at Northern Michigan University and established in 1979, the journal features poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and hybrid work. “Their editors take chances on writers who take chances,” says McElroy. “For writers finding their voice, there’s no greater gift than a journal like Passages North.” Submissions in all genres will open on September 1.

Another journal McElroy turns to for its experimental writing is DIAGRAM, an online journal of text and art edited by Ander Monson. Published six times a year, DIAGRAM recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the release of a pack of tarot cards; authors including Jennifer S. Cheng, Danielle Evans, Kelly Link, and Elissa Washuta each contributed new works inspired by the major and minor arcana. DIAGRAM published McElroy’s story “The Death of Your Son: A Flowchart” in Issue 14.6; the flowchart format of the story not only suited the sensibility of the journal—inventive in its fusion of image, schematics, and text—but also encouraged McElroy to experiment with form in their novel. DIAGRAM is open to submissions year-round via the journal’s online submission manager.

McElroy has loved the print annual No Tokens for years. “They’re run entirely by women, queer, trans, and nonbinary individuals, and they have some of the best taste around,” they say. “Like the writing of their editor in chief, T Kira Madden, they publish work that is highly stylized and, to borrow from their mission, ‘felt in the spine.’” First published in 2014, the journal showcases poetry, fiction, nonfiction, interviews, and art. “I admire journals that are invested in the sonic quality of the literature they publish,” notes McElroy. “Every piece that appears in No Tokens deserves to be read aloud.” Submissions are currently closed.

While on a break from writing The Atmospherians, McElroy placed the story “There Are No Footprints Today” in Conjunctions, which helped them expand on themes in their novel such as claustrophobia and moral relativism. McElroy, who has admired Conjunctions since discovering issues in the library stacks as an undergrad, praises them as one of the oldest journals dedicated to experimental literature and the publisher of many of their all-time favorite authors, including John Ashbery, Matthew Baker, Valeria Luiselli, Sigrid Nunez, and Can Xue. Edited by Bradford Morrow at Bard College, Conjunctions publishes poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation, and hybrid work in a print edition twice a year as well as via its weekly online magazine. Submissions are open for the online magazine year-round.

In addition to writing fiction, McElroy pens essays and criticism—a versatility they found well matched in the print quarterly New England Review, which in 2016 published a personal essay and a piece of art criticism by McElroy. “Each piece received astute edits tailored to what it needed,” McElroy says. “The editors always see the work on its own terms.” McElroy says the review has been a longtime champion of their work; in the editor’s note of the review’s last issue of 2020, editor Carolyn Kuebler affirmed the New England Review’s investment in writers for the long haul: “Our support and discovery of emerging writers would mean less if we didn’t continue to be interested in them after they became a little better known.” Submissions in all genres—poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, and translation—are open until May 1. 


Dana Isokawa is the senior editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.