A Regular Stream of New Reading
Steve Himmer is the author of the novel The Bee-Loud Glade, and his short fiction has appeared in a number of journals and anthologies. He teaches at Emerson College in Boston, and edits the webjournal Necessary Fiction.
Interview by Lynn Holmgren
Your webjournal delivers “a fresh story each Wednesday”. Are people more susceptible to fiction on Wednesdays? Is fiction being discussed around water coolers? Should it be?
You know, I honestly can't remember why we chose Wednesdays to post our stories. Maybe it just seemed like a good idea at the time. But I like the ability of a new story to break up the week, right there in the middle when it gets boring and the weekend is still far away. And I love the idea of people discussing new fiction around the water cooler—wouldn't that be great? Right between Top Chef and fantasy football a chat about what's on Wigleaf that morning.
Do you think that the weekly format is a more sustainable model for an online journal to retain readership?
It's more sustainable for me, and it's also the way I prefer to read fiction online—one story at a time instead of in larger issues. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of great online journals using the issue model, like The Collagist, PANK, Diagram, and so many others. But speaking only for myself sometimes a whole big issue at once is intimidating because looking at it reminds me I'll need to sit at my desk to read it instead of on the train, in the park, or wherever I tend to read print journals. That's changed a bit since I've gotten a tablet, but I prefer a regular stream of new reading one little bit at a time.
Your monthly Writer-In-Residence position is a unique feature that I have not seen before with a journal. From Pank Editor Roxane Gay and Writer/Translator Alison Anderson to debut novelists Sara Levine (Treasure Island!!!) and Lee Rourke (The Canal), your two-year old archive is rich with a diverse cast of voices. How do you select your writers? How have the ways in which they use the platform surprised you?
I'm thrilled with how that aspect of the site has developed. The idea was to just give up control of a section of the site to see what would happen, and that's how it's worked out: I don't know what a Writer In Residence is going to post until they post it, like everyone else. So it's always a surprise, in that sense, but in terms of how the platform has been used I think Robert Kloss' collaborative month was pretty unexpected and awesome—though a challenge for me in terms of formatting, at times, which I enjoy—and the breadth of Matthew Salesses' series on revision last month blew me away. I'm honored and amazed at the caliber of writers and artists willing to share their work with us, and what they come up with. As for selection, it's usually because someone's work has caught my interest or the interest of Michelle Bailat-Jones, our book reviews editor. Sometimes I read a story elsewhere and wondered what that person would do with a month, or there's a recent book I'd like to draw more attention to, or maybe I've learned of a project someone is doing and I'm intrigued enough to give them a platform for it.
One of my ongoing concerns with that series has been falling into "cliquishness," where writers share work by their friends, then those friends share work by their friends, and so. It happens, and I think it's inevitable to a degree, but Michelle and I have tried to bring in writers who aren't generally part of the "usual" online literature conversation and hope to do that even more. The challenge, of course, is that writers who aren't already part of that conversation aren't always interested in working online—I've run into that problem a couple of times when making invitations.
I fell in love with the ‘Research Notes’ section of the journal. Writers (myself included), can’t seem to get enough of hearing about what inspires published writers. Perhaps we believe their success could be contagious, or maybe it just helps to see them at ground-level and know how back-breakingly hard it actually was to produce a perfectly whole novel. Was this section initially inspired by a particular work and/or writer?
Thanks. I'm glad you're enjoying that. It's a project that came from my own love of research and a curiosity about how other writers conduct and use it. I'm fascinated with the ways research finds its way into fiction, where sometimes it's literal like historical or scientific details and in other stories or books it's background no one knows about but the writer. Which tends to be the way I use research. What's compelling, I think, is defining research broadly, not just as archival or library work—though I love archives—but also interviews, observation, wandering around a city looking for details or digging through family photos. I should mention my day job is teaching writing (surprise, a writer/editor who teaches!), often a required first-year course in "Research Writing," and in my program we emphasize audience, genre literacy, and research as the verb in that course title—research to know how writing works, not just writing based on research. That philosophy is probably reflected in what I've tried to do at Necessary Fiction.
Necessary Fiction serialized Grant Bailie’s novella New Hope for Small Men in 2009-2010. How successful was this project? Does Necessary Fiction have any plans to serialize additional works?
It's hard to measure the success of something like that. Site statistics can be pretty inaccurate, I've found, because of RSS readers and other ways of subscribing without visiting the site directly. The reactions were positive, though our audience was smaller then. Like everything we do, that was a bit of an experiment. Ultimately it came down to the fact Grant had a terrific novella and I wanted people to read it—it's ridiculous he's not better known and more widely read. We've serialized a couple of other works as part of the Writer In Residence project—which hadn't started when we published Grant's novella—but nothing so formal. It's tough, because a long work can go on for such a considerable period of time that readers might not stick with it by plain old attrition. I'm not sure serials are the best way to get people to actually read something online, though an innovative serial undertaking tends to get people excited even if they don't actually read it.
Necessary Fiction’s most recent story “Things We Have Tried to Unsuccessfully Purchase on eBay” by Andreas Trolf, is a droll satire featuring a very normal couple disillusioned by the discovery of abnormal things (bodily fluids, hardcore porn) that they cannot bid upon on eBay. As they click, browse, and purchase their lives away, the abstract narrator pleads for his own loneliness to abate. The experience of reading this strange cyber-tale on my computer produced a metaphysical experience in which I felt my own attachment to our ever-increasing dependence on glowing screens. Do you think there is a type of story that is almost more appropriate for online reading? Do you ever select fiction with this in mind?
I don't think there's a type of story best suited to online reading, but as a reader I'm very interested in fiction (and poetry) that explores our relationship to the web, to a networked world, to communication technologies in general, all of that. So I'm always excited about a story that plays with those elements thoughtfully—bottom line, it has to work as fiction, not technology writing, but I'm a firm believer that the web, databases as a cultural form, and the technological era we're in are making a pretty substantial mark on how we think about and represent the world. So sure, that shows up in our stories because it's a big part of my cultural taste and enthusiasms. I think there are types of stories that tend to dominate online, and there's something to common assumptions about online readers gravitating toward shorter reads (though I suspect that's changing with more mobile ways of reading), but I'm not sure it's about being better suited to the web than it is trends and preferences among writers and readers working online.
What is your submission process like? How far in advance are you selecting your stories for each week?
It's pretty straightforward: people submit, and I read their stories. It's just me reading submissions, though I'm slowly accepting it's not sustainable that way. We get too many submissions now. I enjoy doing it myself, most of the time, because in some ways the journal feels like an argument on behalf of the kinds of stories I want to be reading, but an argument in which I can get out of the way and let them speak for themselves. I've been fortunate to bring in great people like Michelle to develop other components of the site as a whole. As for selection, sometimes I'm panicking in need of a story as Wednesday approaches, and other times I've got stories lined up for three months ahead. Which happened this summer, luckily, so I could close submissions for a while and catch my breath. One disappointment in all this—the only one, really—is I can't give submissions as much attention as I once could. I used to try really hard to give a thorough personal response to each story and to offer feedback (though I'm sure not everyone appreciated that, and some wondered—or emailed to ask—where I got off). I can't do that any longer, unfortunately, and have to send far more form rejections than in the past.
How will you continue to make fiction necessary?
Oh, keep doing what we're doing, I hope, but more so. We've recently had Amber Lee start doing some weekly interviews and I'm excited about how that's shaping up. I'd like to keep working at publishing writers from outside the US, because I don't see much point in being geographically limited online. Michelle, who is a translator by profession, has been wonderful for getting some writers in translation onto the site and I'd really like to do more of that. And I'd love to take more advantage of being online: fiction that incorporates video, games, other elements... I've been big on electronic literature for years (which is how I came to ask Scott Rettberg to be a Writer In Residence, among others) and would be glad to see that reflected more fully on the site. Who knows what else will come along. As a publishing medium, the web allows a flexibility and fluidity that's harder in print, and I hope we keep taking advantage of that by trying new things, whether they're always successful or not.
Lynn Holmgren lives and writes in Dorchester, MA.