Go Forth (Vol. 13)

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And people ask the Nicolle Elizabeth, they ask me, how do I start a literary journal? My answer is the same as it is to anything else: You just do it. So I thought it would be good to ask some people who founded a literary journal a bunch of questions and, since this column is about interviewing people who have made their own way, to keep it real, I thought, let’s ask Gigantic about that, so then you can go on and start your own literary journal, too. A thing I like about The Gigantics is that they’re all writers from completely different aesthetics but they still come together to work on this journal. Plus they’re just a bunch of nice and incredibly talented, hardworking people. It's an example of how to not be a complete jerk while succeeding at putting out a pretty substantive journal. I think the real answer in starting a literary journal is this: Stick with your original integrity always, sounds lame but actually do follow your heart, be at every party within a thousand mile radius you can go to, make sure you still set aside to work on your own writing which is a whole different thing, and work your ass off. Love, Nicolle

NICOLLE ELIZABETH:  I remember when Gigantic started. It was very exciting.  Can you please tell how Gigantic started?

JAMES YEH: The short story is, sometime around 2008, four writers—Lincoln Michel, Rozalia Jovanovic, Ann Dewitt, and me—in New York got together to make a really big literary magazine for really short writing. We had initially intended to only publish the very short fiction of ourselves and some friends or classmates whose work we admired, but then the idea started to grow. Because we wanted to make it as good as it could possibly be, we started reaching out to more established people we had contacts with, like Deb Olin Unferth, Justin Taylor, and Tao Lin. Then out of nowhere, the California-based poet Joe Wenderoth volunteered to edit for us a section of unpoetry-like poetry called Seizure State. We had never met Joe or had any previous contact with him—I think Ben Marcus, who several of us studied with, must have told him about us, something for which we are incredibly appreciative. Suddenly the idea of including our own fiction was no longer appropriate. This was a time of trying to think of just about everyone we knew, utilizing whatever unlikely contacts we might have: being an intern at this publication, having previously studied with that professor, having once met this person at a reading or lecture or event, and so on. It was fun to do things like ask Tao about genius and then take a divergence test and send that test on to Malcolm Gladwell; or to go out for Korean BBQ with Gary Shteyngart while peppering him with all sorts of weird questions about the literary potential of meat; or to rescue some piece of writing that was rejected by one of the Big Places (pinned to a sort of Wall of Shame, actually, to be completely honest) but that still carried some inexplicable, compelling charge. And then we printed it locally and threw a big party for it in a DIY space that’s since been shut down, sold cheap beer, and had a generally amazing time. And we’ve just kept on doing it.

These days Lincoln and I keep the fire stoked, with the help of our small but incredibly dedicated and intelligent staff and volunteers. We’re in the process of putting together our fifth print issue Gigantic Talk (due out in late fall), as well as Gigantic Worlds, our first book, an anthology of speculative fiction, due out in December.

LINCOLN MICHEL: As James said, our initial idea was more of a zine for our friends, but the concept evolved pretty rapidly. There were a few things we know that we wanted from the beginning that we have (hopefully) held true to. First, we wanted to publish unique and memorable issues. I love literary magazines, but too many of them seem indistinguishable from issue to issue (or from each other). We wanted to publish something you would keep on your shelf. Each of our issues has looked very different from the last, from a hand-glued accordion fold to a big broadside, and we’d like to think our content is unique. 

Secondly, we were very interested in the role of “constraints” in the artistic process. In addition to publishing only short short fiction, we like doing special sections and themes to prompt our writers to do something different. For example, for our second issue—Gigantic America—we asked a group of writers to write very short biographies of famous Americans that we put on the back of “trading cards.”

Lastly, we wanted to keep the “zine” feel and make the issues affordable. Our price has crept up since our first three-dollar issue, but we’ve always sold our Gigantics for single digits.

So all of those things have remained from the start.

NICOLLE: Why did you guys want to go with both online and in print?

JAMES: It has to do with needs and wants, maybe. We needed a web presence, and we wanted a print one. Even in 2013, things don’t seem entirely “real,” without some kind of objectness: print. And things don’t seem to actually exist, unless they’re also available, or discoverable, online. And soon, as I just said, we’ll be doing books, too. 

LINCOLN: I really love both. It may be cliché, but they really do each have their own strengths and weaknesses. I like having beautiful objects in my hands and on my shelves, and I like looking at beautiful and interesting work on my various-sized screens.

NICOLLE: How important is participating in things like readings for a journal?

JAMES: It’s always important to participate in your community, and at Gigantic we really try to do our share. At the same time, our resources are of course limited—Gigantic is, sadly, not a source of income for any of us—and so the focus is, and will always be, on creating publications that are intelligent, artful, unexpected, and inexpensive. Those and tote bags.

NICOLLE: But really don’t you guys feel like the important thing is good writing?

LINCOLN: Good writing is probably the most important thing, but, at the risk of getting some angry comments, I would suggest that it isn’t the only important thing despite what a lot of editors say publicly. Gigantic, like many of the magazines we admire (NOON, Tin House, etc.), has a real aesthetic and we do reject writing that we think is “good” or even “great” but which simply doesn’t fit what we are doing. There are also the questions of how the pieces work in conversation with each other, how the layout and visuals interact with the work, how the work fits into the magazine’s vision, and so on. Good writing isn’t the only thing, nor would readers actually want it to be. Luckily, there are enough great magazines that almost all good writing should find a good home somewhere.

NICOLLE: Is it stressful to be fiction writers who are also publishers and which one comes first to you as humans? 

LINCOLN: If Gigantic was a full-time job, certainly. But we do not work full time on Gigantic, and we certainly don’t get paid. I think of myself as a writer first, if I’m forced to make a distinction. Working on Gigantic does eat into our writing and (non-Gigantic) reading time. However, I think James would agree that working on Gigantic has helped our writing in many ways.

JAMES: I would agree. For me, it’s certainly helped with learning how to write better, more considerate e-mails. It’s also helped to demystify the whole process, and to understand it from another perspective.

LINCOLN: Ha! I was thinking more that we are stronger editors of our own work having spent so many hours editing Gigantic. But e-mails are important, too. 

NICOLLE: Where can we find Gigantic?

JAMES: Here, and then here 

NICOLLE: Do you plan on selling Gigantic to a bigger publisher-ish type organization or DIY forever?

LINCOLN: Is this actually possible? Sign us up! DIY forever-or-until-someone-pays-off-our-debt-and-hands-us-bags-of-cash.

NICOLLE: How do you come up with the theme issue concepts? 

LINCOLN: Perhaps surprisingly, I think that most of our themes have started as titles. We kick around titles to each other and when one clicks, we hash out how the themes would work: what the constraints would be, how the design could be influenced, etc.

JAMES: One of the nice things about the name Gigantic is that it lends itself as an interesting adjective. So we’ll often just try different phrases out loud, which is how I think we found Gigantic Talk (the title of our next print issue), because it sounded interesting and then offered a lot of possibilities for content and format. Lincoln, do you remember how did Gigantic Worlds (the title of our first book) came about? 

LINCOLN: It came about because Gigantic Balls of Gas elicited too many laughs.

NICOLLE: What is Gigantic’s favorite food, as a collective?

LINCOLN: Let’s just say we both a) live in NYC and b) watched a lot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as kids. 

JAMES: You really think that? I feel it would actually be fried chicken. We’re southerners at heart. This one restaurant, Pies & Thighs, is about the only way I can get Lincoln to unbegrudgingly come to Williamsburg.

LINCOLN: Why hasn’t a fast food chain marketed fried chicken wrapped in pizza yet? 

JAMES: Isn’t that what the combination KFC/Taco Bell/Pizza Hut was all about? Fried chicken, pizza, plus tacos?

NICOLLE: Are literary conferences lame or awesome and why? 

JAMES: I know it’s popular to bash them, but I mean, what do you expect? It’s a conference, in a giant hotel, usually in the most soulless part of the city because that’s where the giant hotels are. Any time you get a bunch of writers and editors and publishers together, I’ve found, there’s going to be a lot of complaining, and so I think whatever people say, you have to take with a grain of salt. The range of experiences can go from abysmal, to dully productive, to actually being, surprisingly, and with enough booze, fairly endurable—which has been our experience. Though I will say, at one particular conference, it occurred to me the whole thing was something like an outdoor music festival—but without the music, drugs, or fun. Also, it wasn’t outdoors.

Did you ever read this brilliant book (César Aira’s The Literary Conference)? Now that’s the kind of literary conference I’d really want to go to. 

LINCOLN: I’ve mostly had a good time at literary conferences and festivals, but normally at the after-parties not the panels. I wish that conferences tried putting writers who disagree on issues together to cause an actual discussion. I don’t really need to watch four writers nod their head in agreement with each other. 

NICOLLE: What are the three most-read pieces on the Gigantic website? 

JAMES: Our interviews with Gordon Lish, Sam Lipstye, and Lydia Davis seem to be the most popular. I saw the writer Rick Moody recently mention the Lish one on his Facebook status.

NICOLLE: Gigantic has a lot of different tastes in literature, how does this all come together and also maybe not come together in a great way? 

JAMES: Well, that’s nice of you to say. Naturally Lincoln and I and our staff will have some differences of opinion when it comes to what pieces we are most personally drawn to, but we are almost always able to come to agreements on what we would like to publish. 

NICOLLE: Is Gigantic printed on recycled paper? 

JAMES: No, but that’s a good idea! For whatever it’s worth, we do print locally, with Linco Printing, in Long Island City, and our bags have been exclusively made by Enviro-Tote, a family-owned, woman-owned and operated company based in New Hampshire. Our black mammoth bags from 2011 were made with 100% excess yarn and recycled bottles.

NICOLLE: Who is Andrew Bulger?

JAMES: Andrew Bulger is Gigantic’s multitalented, enigmatic man of illustrations and bags. He can also sell you a house.

LINCOLN: A cool dude.

NICOLLE: How many more years are you doing this forever for?

LINCOLN: What is the age when you have to get real jobs that pay again?

See more of the Go Forth series here.