“Oh my god, this weird car just drove by…Did you see it?…It’s like a go-kart or something.”
I squint down the street and make out unusual tail-lights.
“See, there’s a story,” she says excitedly before jumping right back into our conversation about (wouldn’t you know it) stories. She’s full of them, a product of her environment. Editor-in-chief of a literary magazine, Wilkes University MFA grad, journalist, and avid reader, Donna is surrounded by, obsessed with, and ever-curious for stories.
“This is one of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to non-fiction,” she tells me outside of Lancaster’s Mean Cup cafe, “I wanted to tell these stories I was finding.” She discovered this interest as an undergrad during her first round at Wilkes, as a radio/television major. Piecing together the script for the campus TV news station intrigued her, but she found her true groove when she started working for the school newspaper. “I kind of just loved telling stories, so I switched gears,” she says. However, life called, and as a sophomore she made the decision to leave school to take a full time job working in radio.
But the itch didn’t go away. She began writing for the local weekly newspaper, The Weekender. At first she was writing album reviews and shorter pieces, but when she noticed what she refers to as “the breath-mint craze” spreading across America, she pitched a story. “You know, it had always been just Altoids, Lifesavers, Certs. But then everyone started coming out with these new breath mints, so I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to do a taste test?'” The paper dug the idea and told her to pursue it. The story ended up on the front page: “Fresh Breath Industry: Making a Mint”
“I loved headlines, especially play-on-words. So, I ended up writing for them for almost ten years. I got so much out of doing the feature stories…I would drive around, see things, and think ‘I want to know about that.'”
During those years she also worked for the daily paper as a “stringer,” covering board meetings, township meetings, and other correspondence. This was all in her spare time, while she was working in a college admissions office. She had a day job and a night job, the latter being a labor of love. She says of being a correspondent for the paper, “It taught me to turn a around a story quickly. I’d get home from these meetings at 9 or 10 at night and I’d have to have the story filed before the next morning.” She loved this work for how it forced her to economize words and keep them to a limit, something she says she still struggles with.
Stories being everything, Donna was eager to tell her own. In 2007, she began working towards her MFA in creative non-fiction at Wilkes University. She speaks highly of her experiences there, especially regarding the people she met and bonded with. “Many of us still get together twice a year for writing retreats…Six of us have matching tattoos.” she says. Of her MFA experience, she went on to add, “It was important. It helped me grow the thick skin I need to survive in the literary landscape today.”
But that wasn’t all she got out of it. During one of the program’s summer sessions, in a class on publishing, her professors Phil Brady and Chris Busa tasked the class with coming up with their own ideas for literary magazines. That day, Donna imagined a creative non-fiction magazine called Hippocampus. She loved the name so much that she went home that night and bought the domain name. It was just that good.
Donna moved to Lancaster County in 2010, when she took a job in the Marketing and Communications office at Elizabethtown College. Soon after, in the spring of 2011, the domain name she had sat on for two years was put to use. Hippocampusmagazine.com is now home to hundreds of published memoirs, flash non-fiction stories, and essays. She has a diverse, qualified volunteer staff (full disclosure, after our interview I became a non-fiction reader) who help to put out the magazine’s monthly issue online. Hippocampus Magazine aims not only to publish work, but to connect with audience and community, as well as educate writers. The website features interviews, reviews, and craft essays alongside abundant and impressive creative non-fiction content.
It’s a big project that doesn’t show any signs of slowing. In 2015 Donna plans to publish the inaugural print issue for Hippocampus, a collection of the site’s best work to date. Not only that, but Donna and her team have launched a weekend-long, creative non-fiction writing conference (fittingly titled HippoCamp) that will take place at the end of the summer. Although the panels, break-out sessions, and keynote speakers have yet to be announced, Donna is confident this event is going to bring a lot of writers to Lancaster next August. She says, “I don’t want it to be the same old writing conference; the goal of Hippocampus is to entertain, educate, and engage and that is what we’re focusing on. I want it to be a learning experience throughout the weekend.”
Ambitious? Yes, and committed. Add busy. Donna’s love for stories, words, and writers forces her to be ever-doing, ever-reaching, and ever-writing. She envisions future projects for herself focused on prescriptive or literary journalism, writing that has the creative freedom to flesh out true stories. “I’ve been trying to get better at time-management, so I can do more of the things I want to do” she tells me. Besides Hippocampus and her own creative writing, she keeps a professional website and an active blog about the work-life balance called All The Sh*t Done. Needless to say, Donna Talarico consistently gets sh*t done and we love it.