Writers Wanted/ Bio Irrelevant
Armchair/Shotgun was started up in 2009, "in the midst of one of the largest unemployment crises in American history since the 1930s." Since then the editors have published a slew of talented emerging writers and also interviewed heavyweights such as Jonathan Lethem. They have developed a high profile on social media, received rave reviews from Luna Park Review and elsewhere, and set themselves apart from other literary journals through their insistence that they don't care about an author's bio, that "Good writing knows only story."
Interview by Becky Tuch
Okay, first of all, your name: Armchair/Shotgun. Why these nouns, why the slash, just...why?
Evan: There are a lot of interpretations, as happens when you name a thing at a bar. I like how, much like a good story or poem, people will read their own meanings into it. For me it implies a certain mixture of good manners and brashness that I find compelling. It’s been a great conversation piece. And no one forgets it.
John: The running gag has been that “armchair / shotgun” was taken from an unreleased Bob Dylan song. We wanted a name signifying leathery Hemingwanian bookishness without being too self-serious. The slash stands out in lists of abbreviations, which we apparently thought would be useful.
You mention on your site that A/S was founded “by writers in January 2009, in the midst of one of the largest unemployment crises in American history since the 1930s.” I think congratulations are in order for launching the journal during this time and for keeping it going. Also, I’m curious why you mention the state of the economy here. Is it to emphasize the passion the editors feel? Or do you wish to set the tone for a certain kind of work that you’re looking for?
John: Most of our managing editors are working writers--that is, writers with day jobs. Writing is a passion as well as profession, and we wanted to doff our caps to anyone willing to burn the midnight oil in a decrepit economy.
Evan: This was before the recession became The Recession, and so a lot of what was out there had a sort of optimism we couldn’t recognize. We didn’t feel like the editors of other journals at the time, many of which we really respect and continue to read, were seeing things from our vantage point.
You also say, and I love this, that you do not care about an author’s bio, that “good writing does not know one MFA program from another. It does not know a PhD from a high school drop-out...Good writing knows only story.” Is there some backstory to this declaration? Forgive me for being nosy, but it sounds like there’s a bit of “Screw the elitist bastards!” floating through this sentiment.
John: Collectively we feel that great writing can grow from formal and informal educations, and we want to encourage writers without degrees to reach out to us. Personally I feel MFA programs have the unintended effect of polishing stories until they lose their sharp edges entirely. There is a kind of soggy, maudlin, prettily-appointed tale of Middle Class Guy in an Existential Crisis that seems to proliferate in MFA programs, that’s long on voice and short on story. We’re not so into those.
Evan: One of the more militant phrases we were kicking around early on was “Literature has had a course number after it for too long,” but the truth is we’ve printed some phenomenal stories from folks with an MFA. We’ve also printed really brilliant tales by folks with no structured education in writing. “Good writing knows only story” serves to keep us honest and is the philosophy behind our anonymous submission policy, wherein we know nothing about an author until we’ve decided whether or not her story is in the next issue. Our hope, too, is that it says to prospective authors, “We don’t care where you come from, just impress us.”
You folks are big on Twitter. I know because I frequently enjoy your company there. Can you talk about social media and how it helps you as writers and editors? How it hurts? How it drives you batty?
John: Though it’s always been our goal to publish a print magazine, a product you can hold in your hand, highlight, dog-ear, and lend to friends, social media is a fantastic way to connect with authors, other magazines, and share the writerly news of the day. It’s the business of chatting about what you’ve read, after a long, solitary afternoon in your favorite reading chair.
Evan: We love being a part of the small-press scene in Brooklyn, and we love getting to know new booky folk around the world. Our blog allows us to let our hair down and write about typewriters or take authors out to review drinks. It lets us get to know other members of the literary scene in a much more personal, informal, occasionally irreverent way, and that’s been almost as much fun as making the magazine itself. (Almost.)
As a writer, though, I need to turn it off. When I’m sitting there with all of these half-fleshed-out people and places, and there’s such immediate access to actual, real-life people and places, it’s a horrible, horrible distraction. It’s actually part of why I work long form or on a typewriter when possible.
You all wear many hats throughout the week. How do you balance your 9-5 work with editing a literary magazine? Does the lit mag stuff happen at the end of the day, on the couch with a glass of wine? Or does it happen on the weekends? How do you stay sane?
John: My day jobs are writing young adult novels and agenting authors. Armchair stuff usually bleeds into the work day (don’t tell my boss), but we typically meet evenings and weekends.
Evan: I’m a recovering journalist, which means these days I’m mostly freelance. The only good thing about that situation is the time it gives me to work on A/S during the day. It’s usually a big pot of coffee perched atop a horrendously un-navigable desk.
Laura: The magazine helps keep me sane, actually. I work at an environmental nonprofit, which these days means tight budgets and global doom. A/S gives me something to focus on that feels good, and something where the stakes are self-imposed. I tend to do magazine work in five-minute chunks throughout the day, and it helps me keep things in proportion. A couple of my coworkers are big fans, too, and it’s nice to be able to vent to them when something isn’t going well. And we’re all friends. That’s essential. I couldn’t commute three hours each way for a weeknight meeting if I didn’t love and enjoy the people in that meeting.
Adam: I am an editor by day and by night--different topics, though. By day it’s educational stuff, and by night it’s the wonderful world of A/S. I’ll second Laura in saying that it is incredibly important that I love spending time with the other editors. It keeps it fun, even when it’s frustrating. Also, we generally try to institute a no booze ‘til the end of meetings rule. Mostly successfully.
Are you all also writers? Have you been able to keep up your own writing schedules, or do you find that editing A/S has sort of become a full-time side project?
John: I write in the mornings before heading into the agency. Though some of us also write, we made a pact early on that A/S would never publish the work of any editor currently “in office.”
Adam: I have (probably too many) “extra-curricular” activities. Writing for publication is not one of them.
Laura: The first issue of A/S--back before I was an editor--included a poem of mine, but that was sort of a fluke. I don’t get the creative writing itch very often; I’m better at helping other people make their work stronger.
Evan: There’s a pen in my back pocket that has lived there for the better part of a decade. The one before that wore out. I write whenever I can, but I’ve found that with A/S it comes in waves. I am almost never writing during the reading period, always inspired to write by our authors during the editing period, too sleep deprived to write during production, and by the time the issue is on the shelf, there is nothing in the world more relaxing to me.
What is your favorite kind of story? Are there themes that you especially like?
John: It seems snarky to say, but I like stories where things actually happen. Character studies, vignettes, and slices of life put me to sleep. I think plotting is one of the most difficult aspects of writing, and one of the last things budding writers learn. I have a special yen for stories about children or from a child’s perspective. I shy away from stories about sex, simply because these are difficult to do well.
Evan: I’m a sucker for stories where ordinary people and ordinary settings are the basis for a narrative that is at once beautifully constructed and somewhat understated. It can hew dangerously close to John’s worst case scenario, but when done well it’s just a whole different species. The short story writer Breece D’J Pancake captures this perfectly, and I’ve been reading a collection by Tim Parish called Red Stick Men that works in a similar way.
What would you like to see more of your submissions?
John: Cosmopolitan espionage. Ladies in waiting.Viking funerals. Long sea voyages. Time travel. Buffalo hunts.
Adam: I think the only thing on my list that John left off was transcripts of Senate hearings on illegal aliens from outer space.
Most literary writers and editors say they are not easily offended. But in fact, I have found that not to be the case. In my own life, I often see writing that offends me: horrible stereotypes, assumptions being made on the part of the writer about how other people feel and think. What is the kind of writing that would offend you?
John: The “mysterious sexy woman” is an offensive little nub of a character. Wish-fulfillment stories for lonely, angry men. Hacky southern dialect. Personally, the red mist gathers whenever I read “experimental” fiction meant to demonstrate the author’s “intelligence.”
Laura: Oh my god, yes. We get a lot of ridiculous stories where the denouement is like “...and then there was another prostitute!” or “gay sex! haha!” It’s offensive the first six times, and then it’s just tiresome. I think it’s the name.
Adam: Yeah... just...yeah.
What is a sure-fire way to be rejected by Armchair/Shotgun?
John: Submit a beautifully written story about fascinating, flawed, attractive people who do nothing.
Evan: Yeah, long, problem-less, arc-less narration.
Laura: Lack of effort. We get novelty pieces sometimes, like silly lists, or pieces with the title spelled wrong, and it’s such a turn-off. When we read something, we want to know you worked on it.
Adam: Insulting the editors, by name, in a submission. This has never happened, but I can’t imagine it would be looked upon favorably. Although, if someone has a really great idea for how this could work, I don’t want to discourage them.
Being relatively new, would you say that you guys are actively seeking work?
Laura: Wait, jobs or pieces to publish? We’re looking for both. Check out our submission guidelines.
What has been the biggest challenge since you have started A/S?
John: We’d like to turn out more than an issue a year, but currently we just don’t have the time. I think we’d all like to spend more hours on the magazine, but day jobs and other passion projects make it difficult.
Laura: We like to express this as “Armchair/Shotgun is published occasionally, and for good reason.”
What has been your happiest surprise as editors?
John: The wonderful authors, poets, and artists we’ve met.
Laura: Ditto. We’ve made friends, which I wasn’t really expecting.
Adam: I’ll second John and Laura’s answers and just add that it has been a pleasure getting to know the staff at the independent bookstores throughout NYC. I continue to be pleasantly surprised by the encouragement and enthusiasm that we receive from all the folks at these fine establishments. It’s such a dynamic and vibrant community and one that we are really thankful to be a part of.
I’m going to pull a James Lipton from “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and ask you: What is your favorite word in the English language?
John: Ice cubes in a glass.
Laura: The white noise of a summer nighttime: crickets and the attic fan whirring and clanking.
Evan: A Fender Rhodes.
Adam: The sound of the subway arriving when I’m in a hurry and have just made it to the platform. Conversely, my least favorite sound is the sound of the subway pulling out when I’m in a hurry and I am still street level and don’t know where my MetroCard is.
John: “Specificity, precision, and brevity, applied in language, drive us towards compassion. " -George Saunders
Adam: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." -Kurt Vonnegut
Laura: “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.” - Philip Roth
Evan: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” -Samuel Beckett
Learn more about the A/S editors here.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.