Rachel J. Elliott on Twenty-Five Years with The SunBy Staci Kleinmaier, Sun assistant editor • January 18, 2023
Rachel Elliott started at The Sun as an editorial office assistant in 1997, processing the mail and fulfilling book orders. Now, as editorial associate and photo editor, there is not much of the magazine production process that Rachel isn’t involved in. She helps select photos, manuscripts, and Readers Write pieces for publication. She corresponds with photographers, authors, and readers. She assists with page layout and juggles behind-the-scenes tasks like contract management and contributor payments. In short, her work keeps the magazine going.
Not everyone stays at a job for twenty-five years. In fact, the average women’s tenure, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is currently 3.8 years. I recently spoke with Rachel about her time working at The Sun, because I wanted to put together this Q&A to honor her accomplishment. I also, selfishly, wanted to learn more about her. Why are get-to-know-you questions so hard to ask without occasion?
I started working at The Sun days before the COVID-pandemic lockdown, so what I did know about Rachel before this interview, I learned mostly through e-mail and virtual meetings. Rachel is a champion for humor and levity in the magazine. Even through a weak Internet connection, she radiates joy and has a laugh that is bright like summer. I once gave her an organic, sugar-free mint that tasted like mentholated garden soil, and she didn’t say anything except, “Thank you.” So I can also say that Rachel is kind, tactful, and forgiving. I am fortunate to have her as a colleague, and each issue of the magazine is a testament to her dedication and editorial insight.
What has kept you at The Sun for twenty-five years?
It’s been a combination of loving the magazine and the collaboration with photographers and authors. I care about what we publish — that’s definitely a big piece of it. And I’ve always loved the people. The Sun draws an interesting mix of readers, contributors, and staff members. That’s hard to find.
Who is your favorite coworker?
Oh, no! [Laughs.] Each person on staff has something about them that I enjoy.
I’ve been able to get to know so many people and stay at The Sun so long partially because of the flexibility. After my daughter was born, I negotiated to work part-time. Having the opportunity to be home half of the day was really special to me, and I don’t think a lot of workplaces care about employees’ quality of life that way. I’ve always admired that about The Sun.
It’s especially rare among literary magazines, because few offer paid positions. Most are run by volunteer staff.
And many publications don’t pay well or at all for photography. I enjoy telling photographers how much we can pay them for their work.
How did you get started with photography?
My dad has always been a good photographer. He gave me his old Canon AE-1 camera when I was fourteen. I had a lot of interesting travel experiences in my teens — I built a sauna in Finland, spent weeks in the mountains of Honduras helping at a clinic, and accompanied a peace group to the Soviet Union before it disbanded. The idea of traveling and wanting to document that got me into photography. But then I enjoyed it so much that I ended up taking photography and darkroom classes and eventually some experimental photography classes. I took a tintype class at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
I resisted digital photography for a while. There is something about the darkroom process — the surprise of seeing what develops from your negatives. I still sometimes like shooting 120 film. I love the playful results that you get from toy cameras.
What were you doing before you started at The Sun?
After college I did an internship with Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C. That got me into publishing work in the first place. Then I moved to Eugene, Oregon, with some friends. I wanted to experience living in the Northwest before settling down. I ended up in a publication job there, too, working for a multicultural children’s magazine called Skipping Stones. Kids from different ethnic backgrounds would send in poetry, stories, or artwork. I stayed there for a couple years, before my husband and I decided to move to Chapel Hill.
I found out about The Sun when I saw it on the magazine stand at the library. I thought, What is this? This is beautiful. I picked it up and started looking through it and happened to see that it was produced locally. It seemed so providential. I stopped by the magazine office and talked with Sy [Sy Safransky, Sun editor and founder] and asked if I could do some volunteer work. I think one of the reasons Sy agreed was because he knew a staff member was leaving soon. The timing was really fortunate.
What did you study in college? Was it related to photography or publishing?
Surprisingly enough, it had nothing to do with either. I look back and think, Why didn’t I major in this craft I’m so passionate about? But I went to a small liberal-arts school, the College of Wooster, in Wooster, Ohio, and I ended up being a philosophy major.
Well, that fits with The Sun.
[Laughs.] It does in a way. The College of Wooster requires an independent study project, where you work for a year on a huge thesis project. The professor I worked with was the one who encouraged me to apply for the internship at Sojourners. And I ended up meeting my husband through that internship. It’s interesting where things can lead you.
How do you think your work has changed you over the years?
As I see all the photography that comes in, I’m inspired to keep photography as a part of my life. I feel lucky to be surrounded by so much depth of creativity.
And, at times, my job has forced me to be direct with people and speak up for myself. I used to be a bit like the middle-child peacemaker, uniting people. I can be quick to say I’m sorry, and I’ve tried to break the habit of taking responsibility for stuff that isn’t even mine to take responsibility for.
What are you excited about right now?
The activities that I get a lot of excitement from are hiking in the woods with my dog and playing cornhole. I am a game person. During the pandemic I played Codenames online with my family. And I play on a volleyball team. We travel to tournaments. I love games where you can be social. I’m all about that. Anytime anybody wants to play, I’m up for it.
Sy is coming up on fifty years at The Sun. No pressure, but is this twenty-five-year anniversary officially your halfway point?
No. [Laughs.] That probably sounds rude to say, but no, as much as I love my job, I will not be here for another twenty-five years.
My husband made me a cake to celebrate, and he asked me if I knew anyone else who has worked somewhere for so long. The only other people I could think of were Andrew [Andrew Snee, Sun senior editor] and, of course, Sy. The time snuck up on me, though. My daughter said that she’s proud of me and that she thinks I do interesting work. It feels good to be appreciated that way.