"Our Sole Ambition is to Publish the Best Writing Possible." A Chat With Michael Ray, Editor of Zoetrope
It's hard not to be awed by Zoetrope. In the world of small press publishing, Zoetrope is pretty much The Godfather of Literary Magazines. Zoetrope appears quarterly and offers up a wholly new look--and sometimes texture--with every issue. Guest designers have included Tom Waits, P.J. Harvey, Jeff Koons, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, to name just a few. Zoetrope has published the likes of Woody Allen, Kurt Vonnegut and Salman Rushdie, as well as filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Miranda July. Then too there is the Classic Reprint feature: in every issue, a short story that inspired a movie is published. Such stories have included Alice Munro's "The Bear Came Over the Mountain," which inspired Sarah Polley's film Away from Her, and a screenplay by Wes Anderson that inspired the short film Hotel Chevalier.
Oh, and one other thing: the magazine was founded by Francis Ford Coppola.
Needless to say, it was a thrill to speak with Michael Ray, Editor of Zoetrope. Ray has written for magazines and film, and became editor of Zoetrope in 2001.
Interview by Scottie F. Gerald and Becky Tuch
Zoetrope is an art and literary quarterly of short stories and one-act plays. Can you tell us a bit about the philosophy of Zoetrope and on the specific choice of the short-story medium for the quarterly?
Francis Coppola believes, like Hitchcock before him, that the short story is the narrative art form most akin to film, as both forms are consumed in a single sitting. So for Francis the magazine is an investment in a form that he's found terrifically inspirational to his own work through the years.
To continue my quoting of big writers and their big ideas: Faulkner said that all novelists are failed poets, that serious, ambitious writers first attempt poetry, as the most demanding, unrelenting form of narrative. Failing that form, they attempt short stories. And only after failing that one do they take up novels. And while in the current market the commercially minded writer would progress in the inverse path, I do share his appreciation of the story as a supremely demanding form of writing--one so accessible in its length that it's the form in which most writers start, and yet one so exacting and offering so little room for error that it's unimaginably difficult to execute successfully.
The writer of a story can be in control of all elements at all times, and thus must coordinate all those elements to his/her intended effect. One can't slip and recover; every word must be right.
Could you give the reader a peek into the life of the editor of Zoetrope? What goes on from the time you walk in the door and hang your coat until it’s time to call it a typical day at work?
There's a lot of reading, some editing, and the usual tasks of managing a small business. And once a week, we drag the recycling bin out to the curb.
Zoetrope has published many wonderful authors, many of whom are quite established in their careers--Mary Gaitskill, Jim Shepard, Woody Allen! With this remarkable catalog of authors to choose from, what is the likelihood of a lesser-known writer being published in Zoetrope?
Our sole ambition is to publish the best writing possible, as we judge it; and in achieving that ambition, we do not consider a writer's resume, or lack thereof. In truth, magazines make their reputations by presenting work by never-before-published writers who then go on to illustrious careers. So the new writer with talent is the ultimate draw for most magazines. That's a fairly long way of saying that the unknown writer faces exactly the same chances of publication as the famous one.
What would you like to see more of in submissions to Zoetrope?
Humor--we see few stories that attempt to be funny, and even fewer that are successful.
What would you like to see less of?
Poetry, political screeds, memoir, film treatments, lunatic rantings--only as we don't publish those forms.
The guest designer feature of the journal is very exciting and innovative, not least of all because it shows the talents of an array of artists in different areas of expertise. One issue featured the photographs of Tom Waits. Another showed the drawings of P.J. Harvey. How are guest designers chosen, and what kinds of instructions are they given for the design?
Firstly, our intention in inviting a guest designer for each issue is to manifest the collaborative nature of film; so we select and edit the stories, and send them to an artist, who returns something we could never expect. And in that way, each issue is a sort of gestalt. Secondly, we select guest designers who we expect will both surprise our readers and produce beautiful or compelling designs. And we provide them very few instructions--the only limit to their vision is budgetary; and even in that case, we've become fairly adept at divining some means of realizing whatever they wish to realize. So the draw for them to design an issue is the opportunity for complete artistic control.
What happens in the Zoetrope online writing workshops?
The online writing workshop shares the dynamic of most workshops: Students complete writing assignments, develop their own work and submit it for review by the workshop instructor and the other participants, and discuss the practice and business of writing. At the culmination of each session, students select their best stories for submission to the magazine.
Zoetrope sponsors a yearly contest that gives winners access to various literary agents. Have there been any big success stories from this contest?
I suppose the biggest success to date was Jonathan Safran Foer, who was a finalist in our short fiction contest shortly before he became the famous Jonathan Safran Foer--though that was before my time with the magazine, and of course we claim absolutely no credit for his subsequent and prodigious output. Yet in most years, three to seven or so of our ten prizewinners and finalists sign with leading agencies as a direct result of their recognition in our contest, and a number of them secure book deals. As a recent example, Bernie McGill won our 2008 contest (judged by Elizabeth McCracken) with her story "Sleepwalkers," signed with an agent as a result, and secured a book deal; and her debut novel, The Butterfly Cabinet, was published by Free Press last July.
Let’s give readers some context about you as editor of Zoetrope. Who are you and what floats your boat on most days? Where have you been before Zoetrope?
Before editing the magazine, I wrote for various platforms--magazines, radio programs, the ubiquitous web--on various topics: mostly books, film, and music. I was living in San Francisco and scheming a move to New York, primarily for a staff job and the attendant health benefits. So I wrote a number of friends there, making my plans known and bidding their collective eye for opportunities. One person I wrote was Zoetrope's former editor, who replied with news that Francis Coppola was moving the magazine from New York to San Francisco and seeking a new editor. Very soon thereafter, I'd landed my staff job--only here in SF.
Who are some of your greatest literary influences, both classic and contemporary? In what ways do they inspire you and your writing?
Boy, that's a big question. There are so many. A fatally insufficient list starts with a number of Williams: Faulkner, Maxwell, Gaddis, Trevor. And there are contemporary writers whose work I love: Charles D'Ambrosio, Elizabeth McCracken, David Means, Jonathan Lethem, David Bezmozgis, Mary Gaitskill, the late DFW. It's impossible to name them all. Oh, Flaubert. Even on a short list, he's there. And the ways in which they inspired me are even more numerous. Principally, though, they remind me that the fundamental utility of writing is communication, not style; and it's in their clarity that their work is most beautiful.
Could you give us examples of unexpected sources that may have strongly influenced one or more of your works?
Well, at this point, I'm writing mostly on assignment--be it for a film or a magazine story (though I'm finding less and less time for those) or whatever. And particularly with films, when the assignments and notes come from producers whose expertise is primarily in marketing or finance, I continually remind myself that even the most seemingly arbitrary of those notes are opportunities for creative problem-solving. And at each turn through the thorny studio path, there must be some solution that both ameliorates their concerns and results in something of which I can be proud. Because there are a million ways to tell a story; it's an idea, essentially, not a specific succession of words.
Do you have a writing ritual?
I have young kids, and young kids--or at least my young kids--obliterate the luxury of rituals. I write when I can, and where I can. There's a great unburdening when you know you have three hours--and only three hours--to write some number of scenes or pages, and if you don't you'll be in violation of some promise--legal or otherwise--and as a result you become less impressed with your own capacity for brilliance, and you abandon the wait for the perfect idea, and you just start. Dostoevsky said too much consciousness leads only to thumb-twiddling, and I've found him to be a pretty insightful person. (And another to add to the above list of literary influences.)
What are you writing these days? Also, what are you reading these days?
These days I'm mostly writing films, to support the aforementioned young kids, and I'm reading submissions to the magazine. I do have time for recreational reading during the odd vacation, and over the last I read The Moviegoer, which I'd somehow never reached, and Patti Smith's memoir.
Over all of your years at Zoetrope, what have you gathered as the outstanding traits of the written works published in Zoetrope?
I think we publish work that's ambitious in some way that seems relevant or interesting.
Where do you think Zoetrope is headed in the near and distant future?
I don't know with any certainty. I hope and trust we'll continue to publish ambitious writing in an aesthetically compelling material form. We're absolutely dedicated to print, and will ride that ship down if necessary, but the industry's in so much flux.
Scottie F. Gerald lives in Boston and is a co-author of Seven At The Sevens: A Collection of Seven-Word Stories, Memoirs and Poems.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.