This Modern Writer: An Interview with Vaughan Simons and Joseph Scapellato

The editors of the much-loved online literary magazine > kill author put out twenty issues between June 2009 and August 2012. These editors, who chose to remain anonymous, “wanted writing that took risks: words that surprised us, shocked us and roused us from our slumber.” In the final issue, the editors revealed two things: that there was only ever one wizard-behind-the-curtain, and that his name was Vaughan Simons. Over the course of several emails, the very gracious, thoughtful, and eloquent Simons spoke with me about the pleasures and challenges of editing, literary magazine design, and the uncertain future of publishing.

1. Was > kill author your first crack at editing a literary magazine? I’d love to hear about your previous relationships with literary magazines, literary blogs, and the publishing world in general.

No, it wasn’t the first literary magazine I edited. From February 2009 to August 2010 (so yes, for a year it overlapped with > kill author– I clearly have too much time on my hands) I edited Writers’ Bloc. This was a weekly updated literary magazine, though perhaps more accurately described as a blog, on the subject of writing. As I admitted at the time, it was a rather pretentious idea. It sounds even more so now. The whole venture was a little hurriedly and, I’ll confess in retrospect, somewhat amateurishly done. For instance, if I’d planned it more thoroughly I’d quickly have discovered that there was already a very well-established online literary journal with the same name. I’m not disowning it, though: Writers’ Bloc featured some great pieces and a number of notable contributors during its short existence, while the whole experience also taught me a lot about editing a literary magazine which I then put into running > kill author. The reason I eventually stopped Writers’ Bloc was because I was investing much more time in > kill author and getting greater enjoyment out of the latter. To be honest, too, the idea of a site with a raison “writing about writing” was always going to have a limited lifespan. The site is still online – though the aging design is a little broken now.

Otherwise, apart from spending a few years avidly reading literary blogs, contributing a few guest posts to We Who Are About To Die and, I suppose, hanging around on the fringes of what people were calling the”online literary scene”, Writers’ Bloc and > kill author have been my only experience of publishing.

2. I’ve witnessed many readers rave about > kill author, so it was no surprise for me when, last year, I saw that your magazine was voted #7 “hottest lit mag” at HTMLGIANT. To what degree do you think that the editorial anonymity- and the mystery this evoked- increased the magazine’s profile?

To be honest, I completely missed that list when it was published. I’m surprised to see it that placed so high because, rightly or wrongly, I often got the feeling that HTMLGIANT, during the period when it was considered the hub of the online literary scene, didn’t really care much for > kill author. Its team of writers included some of the best-known faces in the literary community and a lot of the coverage pushed that community ideal. I suppose that placed it in diametric opposition to what > kill author was trying to do.

I don’t kid myself. I absolutely know that the editorial anonymity of > kill author was the USP that initially won the magazine its high profile, just because people were obviously wondering who was running it behind the scenes. When I decided to edit the journal anonymously I thought the idea might garner a little interest, but I honestly didn’t expect it to be quite such a talking point. However, once the magazine was established and readers could see it was publishing great fiction and poetry, the anonymity faded into the background and > kill author continued to be successful on its own merits, which was hugely gratifying.

3. Other than the content, one of the things I most enjoyed about this magazine was its stunning design. The visual aesthetic and user interface did not seem bound to the print magazine model, > kill author was its own animal, evolved for online living. What were your original design and interface goals? How do you feel about these goals now, looking back?

I think you summed up one important aspect of the design in the wording of your question: > kill author was proud to be an online entity and didn’t view it as being the second best option after print, which- rightly or wrongly-  I felt many online literary journals did at the time. There was also a sense, in many online publications, that the content was the only important aspect, not the look and feel of the site, and as a result some of the designs I saw were completely atrocious and made my retinas bleed. That applied even to some of my favourite literary magazines. I’m so pleased that, three or so years later, both those tendencies have changed for the better.

I’m rather fortunate when it comes to putting together websites, because the web is my career. I’ve been a web producer, both building and editing sites, for over thirteen years, so I have some knowledge of good web design and typography. I love minimalism, but there’s a common assumption that it can only be achieved via acres of whitespace. I consciously steered away from that. Black backgrounds, of course, are a popular opposite- and one I’ve noted in quite a few literary journals – but while they might scream “We’re so intense” they can also be tiring to read from on a screen for long periods. So I went with what I hope was a calming, yet unusual, grey background.

The typography for > kill author had to be sans serif (apart from the typewriter style font of the logo) because, while serif fonts are preferable to read on paper, they’re not suited to the web. I also loathe the design fixation, particularly evident on sites related to literary subjects, with trying to make online content look like print. It’s ridiculous, quite honestly, because they’re entirely different beasts and used in completely different ways. As for the interface, well, that’s my background in building websites coming into play again- it’s been drilled into me over years that sites just have to be useable and easily navigable.

Mike Meginnis wrote a really good post for Uncanny Valley’s blog a couple of years ago, which was all about the design of > kill author and a few other online journals. It’s an excellent, accurate and very observant piece, which still has a lot to teach anyone if they’re putting together a new literary site.

4. Currently, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?

In the introduction to the final issue I actually mentioned the literary magazines that really appeal to me and never fail to get my attention.

LIES/ISLE has fascinated me from the moment it first appeared, for its incredibly inventive design, its themed nature and, of course, its amazingly challenging (and yes, I did say “challenging”) content. DIAGRAM is the same- always surprising, always thought-provoking content backed by an unusual and characterful design.

ILK Journal is newer, but I’ve loved every issue so far. > kill author published quite a lot of poetry in comparison to many journals, but I was always extremely selective in accepting submissions, perhaps even more so than with prose, because I find the reaction to poetry often comes from a much more emotional level (and that, of course, depends on the reader’s/editor’s own emotional level). ILK‘s chosen poems always have a very good strike rate when I read each issue, and I suppose I read many of them with half a thought that they’re the kind of work that could have also found a home in > kill author.

Although > kill author pursued a committed online route, I loved the four print issues of Artifice Magazine and I really look forward to seeing where the editorial team go with their plans for the future. I also admired the fact that the magazine had a conscious “manifesto” – something that certainly influenced me when I was coming up with the approach for > kill author. I think many editors shy away from a manifesto in favour of simply saying they want to publish “great work”. Well, everyone wants to publish great work, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a “big idea” behind your choices. In fact, I see it as an immensely positive thing.

Finally, I can’t leave out PANK. It continues to showcase a wonderful mix of work, from quite conventionally structured stories through to unusual, daring poetry, but what I particularly admire is how the journal has maintained such high standards for so long. That really takes some doing when other publications, like > kill author, come and go.

5. Did you ever receive emails where readers playfully (or aggressively) attempted to guess your identity? Did such emails flatter, disturb, or bore you?

There were a few playful, though never aggressive, emails in the first few months of > kill author‘s existence, which I responded to in an equally playful way because they were usually flattering and well meant. On the web, however, I saw some very aggressive conversations about > kill author, the identity of the editors, the ethics of being anonymous, which at times became exceptionally nasty. Thankfully, even those vituperative forum posts and comments disappeared after a year or so when, I hope, it became clear that > kill author was sticking around and continuing to publish good work. Cheekily, I’ll admit that I always found it quite amusing when some of the people who in the past had been the most vocal in criticising > kill author then ended up sending in submissions- though I hasten to add that since I always tried not to look at a writer’s name until after I’d decided on the fate of a particular piece, that didn’t influence my decision.

6. What were some of the unexpected delights of editing > kill author? I’d love to hear about anything that floored you.

The biggest delight was always when I read pieces that, as I think I said in some of my editorial on the site, made my jaw drop- usually because of the writing style, the language or the imaginative ideas on display, but sometimes other aspects too. It’s as simple as that, really. To elaborate: I guess it was particularly delightful when such work came from a name I’d never heard of before, or when it was a writer who was clearly trying something very new for them. There were also a few occasions when I received work that, initially, didn’t fit into the style of > kill author but, as I read, the jaw started wobbling and then dropped to the desk. I won’t name specific pieces because it would be unfair to highlight particular writers, but I’ll give you an example: I’m really not keen on stories with very domestic scenarios detailing events within a family, and > kill author received a lot of these. A lot. Especially about childhood. However, there are a few such pieces in the magazine’s archives and though they’re different in subject matter from more “typical” > kill author material, they somehow fit- whether it’s because an aspect of the language, other themes, something else, maybe something that can’t be easily defined. But they fit.

I loved getting emails from people who weren’t writers, who weren’t looking to submit work in future, saying that they had somehow discovered the site and enjoyed reading an issue. One thing that’s always bothered me about the online literary scene and also, to an extent, small press publishing is that the readership is completely dominated by writers who are also submitting work to the same selection of publications. I understand why that happens, but it can feel a little claustrophobic and as if you’re always preaching to the converted. It was fantastic to discover that > kill author had readers who weren’t part of that scene and didn’t even have any interest in it.

7. I’ve got to ask: what went into your decision to include “>” in the magazine’s title?

I love that question- I was asked about the name on many occasions, but never about the “>”.

As I mentioned earlier, I work on the web. That means I’m obviously a bit of a geek. In the kind of raw computer programming that most of us never see these days because we’ve got glossy operating systems hiding all the complexity, “>” is the prompt to enter an instruction, and “kill” is the term used to instruct a computer to end a process. If you’re a child of the ’80s, as I am, you might also note a reference to those old text adventure games: “> kill author”, “> kill frodo”, “> kill everyone”. The many hours I wasted playing The Hobbit on my ZX Spectrum in 1982 clearly stayed with me.

8. In the introduction to the final issue, you share some of your reasons for starting the magazine:

…when this journal launched in the middle of 2009, online literary magazines were in the ascendant. They even came with a “scene” attached (though never > kill author‘s kind of scene, to be honest). Looking around at these publications, I noticed that many of them had editors whose personalities and reputations seemed, at times, to almost overshadow the work they published. I wanted to put the focus back on the content and, as a result, chose anonymity.

When you look at today’s online literary magazines, what do you make of them? Do you think there’s still a “scene,” and that editors’ personalities and reputations take precedent? Or does it seem to you that greater focus is placed on content?

Things have changed considerably in the three years since > kill author launched. I think, thankfully, that content has returned to being the greater focus, just as it should be. As for editors’ personalities and reputations- well, maybe it’s just because I’m taking slightly less interest, but I honestly couldn’t tell you the names of more than a couple of literary magazine editors now, whereas in 2009 I could have reeled off a host of names.

The whole “online literary scene” is something that I’ve always found wearisome, I’m afraid, and I know that’s a very unpopular view that puts me firmly in the minority. Frankly speaking, for all that people inside the bubble of the “lit scene” talk about how supportive it is, I just see writers endlessly back-slapping and telling each other how great they are, how important they are, how the community is the be all and end all. I fully appreciate that I may well be alone in this viewpoint, but writing is a solitary activity most of the time and I tend to think that’s how it should remain.

Unfortunately, I also realise it’s because of my chosen career- the web and by extension social media- that nowadays there apparently have to be online communities for anything that people do, including writing.

As to whether there’s still a “scene”, I really couldn’t tell you. My perception would be that it’s dispersed and faded a little, thank heavens, but I guess there are still some people who are unwilling to give it up. If that’s what makes them happy in their writing life and keeps them doing what they love, then good for them, but it was never really my favoured environment and, as a result, it was never really > kill author‘s either.

9. In the final issue, you also discuss your reasons for ending >kill author‘s run. You mention that “the focus is gradually shifting to e-books and the small/self-publishers,” and you reference the “uncertainty we can’t help feeling about the place of online literary journals in such a quickly shifting landscape.” You note that the current climate might “require a radically different approach to running a literary magazine.” Do you yet have a sense of what this radically different approach might entail? Can you point to any pioneers? And do you think that the literary magazine- at least how we conceive of it now- is an endangered species?

I wish I did have a sense of what that different approach might entail, because then I might be tempted to get ahead of the rest and do it. But I don’t. I don’t have a clue. Yet. I do think that e-books and the opportunity to self-publish your own e-books has already made a small difference to the nature of publishing, and I think those changes are only going to get more profound in the next couple of years.

10. Can you talk a little more about the small but growing effect of e-books on the nature of publishing? What is this effect, and what do you think it might lead to?

I suppose, if I’m brutally honest with myself, I was rather a coward when writing the introduction to the final issue of > kill author. I didn’t feel as if I could say, in such clear terms, that the literary magazine might well be an endangered species, because it would seem ungracious, even rude: “Well, it’s all been great fun, but > kill author is abandoning this ship before it sinks”. I can’t emphasise strongly enough that this absolutely wasn’t the reason I brought > kill author to an end- it was far more personal, because I felt I couldn’t do justice to reading the sheer amount of submissions anymore- but my uncertainty about the future of literary magazines undoubtedly played a part in the decision.

I appreciate that it may sound harsh, but I don’t think progress is something that should scare us. Yes, it might mean that literary magazines eventually become far fewer in number, though I don’t think they’ll ever die out entirely. Yet would such a decline necessarily be a bad thing if something better came along and existed alongside? I don’t think so. Look at e-books- yes, there are still some who complain that they’re”killing off” traditional hardbacks and paperbacks, but people love their Kindles, Nooks and iPads and they’re reading more books than ever before as a result. Surely that’s a positive development, not a negative one?

11. Where are you at with your own writing? You’ve spent so much of the last three years devoting your time to the work of others- what sorts of writing projects are you working on these days?

This is the embarrassing question. Or rather the embarrassing answer. The writing projects I’m working on these days can be summed up in precisely one word: none.

When I started > kill author I was already writing less- perhaps one of the reasons I wanted to try editing a literary magazine –  but in the ensuing three years I’ve stopped entirely. I’m not pretentious enough to call it writer’s block, because that would somehow imply that I thought I was a good enough writer to have a genuine case of writer’s block, but every now and then I try and rediscover the words and just end up staring at a blank white screen for hours. Whether I’ll ever be a writer of fiction (and my usually disastrous attempts at poetry) again, I really don’t know. I hope so, but if not then I certainly want and need to find something to replace that gaping hole in my life.

Besides, having edited a literary magazine like > kill author for three years, I can absolutely tell you that they’re quite enough people who want to be writers. Probably too many, in fact. One less writer won’t be any great loss.

12. Any thoughts on what your next editing/publishing project might be?

Well, I took voluntary redundancy from my job at the start of August, so my first”project” has to be the mundane but utterly necessary task of getting a job. (No, that’s not a pitch for employment- though if there are any interesting publishers reading this who want to take on someone with fantastic web experience and knowledge of e-books, then I’m not ashamed to suggest that you should get in touch. Now. Please.)

Otherwise, no, I still have no idea of what my next project might be. I thoroughly enjoy editing online magazines, but I don’t want to do one on my own again because by now I would value the opportunity to bounce ideas off other people. I’d actually like to be part of a genuine editorial “team” next time, rather than just me sitting alone at my desk and pretending to be a team. Also, as I said in the closing note of the final issue, whatever my next project might be, I won’t be doing it anonymously. Once is enough for that trick.

Vaughan Simons lives in London, has a prosthetic limb (but not for fun), and worked as a web producer/editor at the BBC for over fourteen years. He recently took voluntary redundancy and is currently looking for employment (which is only a partial hint that you might like to offer him a well-paid job).

Joseph Scapellato was born in the suburbs of Chicago and earned his MFA in Fiction at New Mexico State University. His work appears in Unsaid, Post Road, Artifice, Kenyon Review Online, Harper Perennial’s collection Forty Stories, and other places. Joseph is Blog Editor at The Collagist. He can be reached at joseph [dot] scapellato [at] gmail [dot] com.

 

  • http://timjonesyelvington.com Tim Jones-Yelvington

    “HTMLGIANT, during the period when it was considered the hub of the online literary scene”

    …ooh. SHADE.