On this week’s episode of Working, Rumaan Alam spoke with Brigid Hughes, the founder of the literary magazine A Public Space and a former editor at the Paris Review. They discussed how she went from studying poetry to running a magazine, why it’s important to have niche publications, and the unique role small literary journals play in helping aspiring authors get published. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rumaan Alam: In 2005, you had left your first job. How long had you been at the Paris Review at that point?
Brigid Hughes: I’d been there a while. It had been not quite a decade, and the magazine had been planning for its 50th anniversary.
Then, you suddenly found yourself away from the place you had begun your career, and with the resolve or the inspiration to create a magazine of your own. What were the first steps that you took to conjure a whole new publication?
It was a time, in publishing in general, where a lot of the commercial magazines were shutting in their fiction departments. There was this conversation, it felt to me, that was going on about the value and necessity of fiction. In part, it felt like a moment to start a magazine that might challenge that, and be a way to explore some of the questions that came out of that debate. It was also a moment when there were a number of writers I had worked with at Paris Review who were just starting out in their careers. Starting a new magazine was a way to continue that conversation with them. There were some people who were interested in small magazines and interested in helping, in terms of funding, to make a new magazine possible. Really, what it took at the very beginning was just announcing that we were going to do this. That was it. You throw your hat over the fence and then you have to go and get it.
It’s very gutsy even now to think about. You were still a pretty young editor, and I think the Atlantic had announced that it was going to cease publishing fiction around that period. They’ve since waffled on that, and I actually don’t know where they are right now, whether they’re publishing fiction or not.
They are, and they have published some great stories in the last year.
There was a period of time where, for a long time, it was like, the New Yorker, Harper’s, and all these magazines that no longer exist, where great American short fiction continued to be published. Even now, thinking about the temerity of you being in your early 30s and saying, “Oh, you know what, if something like the Atlantic is no longer publishing fiction or if Playboy is no longer publishing cutting-edge fiction, maybe I should be the one to do that.”
I think there’ve been a few moments when, if I had stopped to think about it, I would have been like: “Does this make sense? Is this possible? I don’t know.” For me, the lucky thing was that I didn’t stop and have that conversation with myself. It just felt like something that there was a moment to do it. I was curious about what kind of magazine we could make and didn’t really think beyond that—just thought what would happen if we tried to do this.
And here we are 15 years later.
Yes. It worked out OK.
Did you have an initial plan that accounted for a lifespan—”We’re going to publish annually, or biannually, or quarterly, and this is what we’re going to do, and this is what we’re going to pay our contributors, and this is what’s going to happen on the website …”—or were you just feeling your way forward at each step?
Very much just feeling our way forward at each step. I do have, somewhere in the archives, an early scrap of paper with a budget and some plans—they couldn’t have been more wrong. We had a really good group of contributing editors who joined early on, a board who was engaged, and we all figured it out together and pieced it together as we went.
You publish tri-quarterly. I’m so curious to understand the business of producing three issues per year. How much of that goes into the reading of submissions, or the creation of a theme for an issue, or the commissioning of artwork, or talking to poets about what they have going on, and how much of it is spent doing fundraising, or thinking about the position of the magazine, or attending events, or being out in the other public space, which is book fairs and lectures and all of that stuff. How is your time apportioned?
All these years later, I still feel I’m supposed to be editing all the time and reading submissions all the time, and that’s what I thought the role was at the very beginning. You never quite manage for that to be how a day goes or a week goes. On a good day, maybe the early morning is for the editing and the reading, and the rest of the day is for the phone calls and the plans and the working with the staff, and the details like that.
I think that there’s an enduring fantasy about creative work, that it is this immersion and the pure labor of wrestling with the words, whether you’re the editor or the writer, but that the reality is slightly more complicated. Sometimes you have to take your computer to the Genius Bar, sometimes you have to chase down the check that someone owes you, sometimes you have to have a drink with your agent, sometimes you have to do these other parts of the business, but they’re all interconnected.
Yeah, and I think that they nourish each other. If you only read, you only wrote, you only edited each day every day, I think your talents would dissipate in some way.
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