Open City magazine
first grabbed my attention back in 1999 when they published an issue that not only had short fiction by Sam Lipsyte
and Mary Gaitskill
, but also poetry by Stephen Malkmus
and Will Oldham
. Those are heavy hitters in my world. I was further impressed when they started publishing books
? one of the first magazines that I can recall to dive successfully into the murky waters of the book world. Their books include My Misspent Youth
by Meghan Daum and the recent Goodbye, Goodness
by Sam Brumbaugh.
I talked recently with Joanna Yas about publishing, the art of rejection, her skateboarding husband, and the press's newest release.
What's your title for Open City? How long have you been there, and when did it start?
Thomas Beller and I are both the editors of Open City Magazine and Books, so technically we're co-editors. But then when someone asks me what my title is, I say, "I'm the editor," since to say "I'm the co-editor" sounds funny unless Tom is standing next to me. And "I'm an editor" is a bit vague. So sometimes I say "I'm the co-editor with Thomas Beller," which is long. You've obviously hit on a complicated issue for me!
Thomas, by the way, is also a founding editor, a co-founding editor actually ? he founded Open City in 1991 with Daniel Pinchbeck. I've been there since 1999.
How many people are involved with the choosing of what goes in each issue of Open City and what is that process like?
We have a handful of readers ? about five for fiction and two for poetry ? who read the slush pile. They're writers and grad students and people we know are familiar enough with the sensibility of the magazine to judge whether or not something deserves a second read. Tom and I also frequently reach into the slush. It's so satisfying to find something good.
We also have contributing editors ? colleagues of ours, mostly writers and editors, who recommend writers they come across. Open City is not democratic. If any of us finds something we absolutely love, it goes in. We don't all have to read it and agree on it. We've published things I wasn't 100% crazy about, or even 47%, but I loved the fact that someone else was so passionate about it. You put out a lot of issues, you have to let go a bit, loosen things up. It can't just be the "things I love" anthology all the time. And I've worked at other places where nothing was published without a committee consensus ? which resulted in a magazine full of very well-written, competent stories with all the right elements. But boring boring boring.
Have you had people get unreasonably angry at you for not accepting their work?
I had a guy once try to engage me in an angry email correspondence about how I didn't "get" his work because I'm a woman. In trying to be nice, my rejection note probably referred in some way to how I felt about the subject matter ? but what he didn't get is that I was just trying to reject his story because I didn't like it. I hate it when people respond to my rejection letters, so I try to avoid writing them via email. This is the most common ? people really want to know what you "mean" in your rejections ? and what we're "looking for," and get frustrated if I can't give them some magic key to acceptance. But the truth is, it's usually this gut feeling. I swoon, I laugh, I feel like I've fallen in love. Then I accept the story.
What have been the biggest success stories from Open City, the magazine and the press?
For the books, a big one is David Berman, whose first book was also Open City's first book ? Actual Air. It's sold somewhere around 15,000 copies, and we keep having to reprint. A lot of people identify us with that book ? to the point that I've heard people call us "Open Air." And then there's Sam Lipstye, whose story collection Venus Drive has a similar kind of cultish fandom behind it. It also happens to be one of my favorite story collections of all time, which is a really nice thing to feel about a book I published.
For the magazine, two success stories that come to mind are Lara Vapnyar and Vestal McIntyre, both of whom were published in Open City for the first time.
Why do you think it's hard to survive in the world of literary magazines?
I'm afraid that even though more and more people decide to be writers every day, I'm not sure if the same amount decides to be serious readers. But hard to survive or not, great new magazines come along all the time, which I love to see. Open City is getting old for a literary magazine ? 15 years! ? which is wonderful, but also a funny kind of middle period. We're not The Paris Review, but we're not Opium either, so there's not the long-standing veneration, nor the excitement about the new. On the other hand, I feel like Open City still has a young feel...and whenever I go to a conference or sit on a panel, there are always new fans, usually in their early to mid-twenties, who tell me how much they love it and are shocked to find out how long it's been around. So we'll stave off our wrinkles as long as we continue to be new for someone.
Daniel Pinchbeck and Robert Bingham were two of the original people that started Open City. Why did Daniel leave the magazine and how did your co-editor Thomas Beller adjust after the tragic death of Robert? Did that happen before you started there?
No, I was there when it happened. Rob hired me in late 1998, and he died in November 1999. The three of them were close friends, so after Rob's death there were some inevitable fractures. But, mainly, Daniel became more interested in global and political matters than in poetry and fiction, so he left. How did Thomas adjust? I'm not sure I can answer that for him. I will say that it's an amazingly sad but wonderful thing to get to continue the work you used to do with a close friend. We consider all the time what Rob would think about what we're doing, so he's still very involved in the process.
Your husband, Jocko Weyland, has started a small zine venture called Elk. Tell me more about that.
Jocko had a zine when he was a teenager in rural Colorado ? called Revenge Against Boredom. A couple years ago he was asked to participate in a zine art show, which got him back into it. He sent them copies of Revenge Against Boredom, but got inspired to make a new zine. He's always been an image collector ? he keeps files of things he's cut out from newspapers and magazines, napkins with drawings on them, etc. Plus he works at the Associated Press photo archive, and he's spent years looking at these old photos. His favorites have nothing to do with "news," but rather things like a boy playing with a tiny chariot pulled by a snail or a woman with the square watermelons ? forgotten photos hidden away in the files.
What are some of the Open City projects you are most excited about right now?
Our next book, in May, is a collection of stories called The First Hurt by Rachel Sherman. It's our girliest yet ? it articulates so much about being a young woman in all its awkward discomfort. Otherwise, I'm not telling, but you'll know when it happens.
You recently visited Portland. What were your impressions of Powell's?
I spent most of my time in Portland in Powell's. I tried to see other things, be a good tourist, but the store kept pulling me back in. We don't have anything like it on the east coast ? a store that basically has something for everyone, but also pleases the nerdiest of book nerds. I used to work at Labyrinth Books near Columbia in NYC, which has an amazing selection of university press titles and journals, really hard to find stuff....but if you asked for the cookbook section, you got laughed out of the store. From Powell's, I went home with a tote bag, a mug, a handful of amazing zines, two beautiful Cloverfield Press books (a tiny press from L.A. I had never heard of ? and am now a huge fan), and the collected letters of Keats. Nice.