S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: I like the chance to sort of see maybe the story that the writer knows that they’re writing, and then also I always feel like there’s this story underneath that maybe they’re sort of aware of, but hasn’t quite found its way up into the piece. And so part of what I enjoy as an editor is sort of finding how to bring that that second story out.
S1: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas,
S3: and I’m your other host, Remon alum.
S1: Remon. The voice we heard at the top of the show belongs to Bridget Hughes, who is a storied editor of literary magazines, and we’ll hear a lot more from her in this episode. But before we journey to that world, I want to know how you are. I’m especially curious because I believe you were out of town reporting a story this week. Was that your first time doing that since covid? And was it like getting back on a bike?
S3: I think maybe the better metaphor is assuming that you know how to ride a bike, it’s like getting back onto a unicycle, right? Everything is safer. People are more people are vaccinated. So and vaccines are very effective. And so you feel kind of safer being out and about. But of course, there are all these cautionary protocols still in place and hotels and trains and restaurants. And, you know, obviously, it was lovely to be out of town. I was in Washington, D.C. I was visiting someone who I am writing a profile of. But even though I traveled through space, I didn’t travel in time like I went to a different place. But it’s still the contemporary reality in that place. And that’s just what it’s like, you know. What about you, Joan? Have you gone anywhere besides home sweet home?
S1: I have. And I actually did feel a little bit like I was time traveling. So I went to the beach last weekend. I, you know, ate indoors, didn’t wear a mask when I was with people I knew were fully vaccinated. And that was strange. But, you know, it was a vacation. It’s never quite normal. Right. But earlier this week, I went to what Project Runway I was used to call an industry event, you know, movie screening in a rooftop bar in Manhattan and like that felt familiar that it was fun, didn’t feel all that strange. But walking back to the subway along the river, chatting with a friend, that did feel odd. You know, it’s been a long time since I’d done something like that. And it kind of helped me understand what movie flashbacks actually feel like.
S3: That sounds really nice and cinematic. Walking along the river on your way home from a party with a friend who was
S1: watching all the rats at play, it was great. So, Ron, who is Bridget Hughes?
S3: Bridget is the founding editor of a magazine called A Public Space, which is, you know, it’s a great little literary magazine and it also is a book in print. Now, a public space is based here in New York. And I have known the magazine from the very beginning, in fact, and I’m pretty sure this is true, I was one of the inaugural donors. It was the magazine from its very first issue. And so Bridget and I have she’s someone who I’ve seen a lot at parties over the years, and it is a magazine that I have followed since its inception.
S1: Very cool. So what should listeners who have never seen a copy of a public space know about it? Like how big is it? What kind of work does a typical issue contain?
S3: So a public space, like most of the little literary magazines that we mention in the conversation in this episode, is one of those periodicals that looks like books. You know, it’s like 200 or so pages, perfectly bound. There’s a mix of short stories, poems, visual art. Sometimes there are these sort of hard to classify experiments that sit between genre, but they use the page as an essential component of that experiment. You can probably find the current issue, a public space number twenty nine at your local library. You can probably find it in an independent bookstore in your neighborhood. You can visit their website, a public space dog and order a copy for yourself.
S1: So it sounds like you are a regular reader and patron maybe is the language of literary magazines.
S3: Well, I don’t know about Patrón. I think I give them twenty dollars, but I am a subscriber to a public space. I subscribe to the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, which has a print journal, NEUN, which is the magazine that comes up in my conversation with Bridgid and plus one, which is a sort of political and cultural journal of the same model that we’re describing here. And I do regularly go to Community Bookstore in Park Slope and buy like a stack of others. I do this because I’m a reader. You know, I think that’s been well established on this podcast. Yes. You know, and when I was a younger writer, it was my dream to be published in these kinds of magazines. You know, it was my dream. I don’t write as much short fiction these days, so I don’t really submit work to these kinds of magazines a ton any longer. Although we do have a short story being published in the next issue of Ploughshares, which is a literary magazine published at Emerson College in Boston. And there is something very special about getting that like a perfectly bound thing in the mail. And it’s cellophane wrapper. And you open it up and you see all these names of writers you know and admire and writers you have yet to have met. And it’s all sort of jumbled together in there. It’s kind of a great thing.
S1: Yeah. It kind of puts you in community with those of the writers.
S3: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, that’s
S1: lovely. So I cannot wait to learn more. But before we get to the interview, I also want to mention that Slate plus Eastern, we’ll hear a little something extra from your conversation with Brigid’s What Will They the play sisters and only the sisters here.
S3: So a magazine like a public space is a not for. It concern, so I wanted to hear from Brigid how the magazine weathered the challenges of the economy the past year, you know, it’s it’s never an easy thing to be in the business of publishing poetry. But like, you know, the past year has been sort of a climactic event. You know, I also asked Brigid to tell the amazing story of the writer Betty Holland, which I don’t want to spoil it. I want to let her tell that story. So you have to subscribe so you can hear that.
S1: Exactly. You have to subscribe. You absolutely do not want to miss that. And why would you when it’s so easy to subscribe to Slate? Plus, you’ll get exclusive members only content, zero ads on any Slate podcast, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Labrys new podcast, Big Mood, Little Mood. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep, dot slash working plus. All right, let’s hear Remans conversation with Bridget Hughes.
S3: My first question is, like kind of an obvious one, but what what is the public space mean? Tell me about the magazine’s name.
S2: I think a public space or I hope a public space means a certain openness to surprise and to a multiplicity of voices in the way that those different voices overlap and intersect and resonate with each other. And in each issue of the magazine, I guess we we sort of try to do that in a different way.
S3: So, Brigid, you began your career in publishing as an intern at the Paris Review, which remains probably one of this country’s most eminent small literary magazines. That magazine was founded in 1953 when that founding editor George Plimpton died in 2003. You succeeded him for a couple of years. You left that title in 2005, and you started a public space only one year later in 2006. Did you know right away that that was your goal, that you were going from one small literary magazine to one of your own? Or did you ever consider, like, maybe I should just get a job as an editor at Random House or maybe I should, you know, go work at the New York Review of Books for a couple of years? Like, how did you know that? Like, you were a true believer in this cause of the small literary magazine?
S2: Well, I think when I started at a public space, it was a sort of a curiosity about what it meant to be an editor. And I had I had some familiarity with literary magazines. I’d gone to school at Northwestern in Chicago, which at the time had a fabulous magazine called Tri Quarterly. And the library at the university had a wonderful collection of magazines. So I was always drawn to literary magazines. When I first arrived at Paris Review, I thought that I might eventually go to medical school and every year I thought, well, not this year. I think I’ll stay one more year. A Paris Review. And it was just sort of a I think to some sense, just a stroke of luck to to to sort of arrive at what was the perfect place for me. And when it came to that transition moment of leaving the Paris Review, I felt so deeply connected to what what a literary magazine could do and to the freedom that that a space like that allowed.
S3: Well, what were you studying when you were an undergraduate whiling your hours away at the library
S2: as many editors? I was an English major and had studied. They had a wonderful undergraduate creative writing program and that I had applied to and studied poetry for a year. And that that sort of led to the editing.
S3: So you were writing poetry as an undergraduate, but you work now as an editor. What’s the sort of relationship between those two things? I mean, what’s the tension there? Do you have to understand how writers work in order to be a good editor? And how was it you decided like, oh, in fact, writing verse not for me, but creating helping people create is for me?
S2: Well, I think, you know, you can’t go to school to become an editor. There’s no degree. I think when I was in college, I knew I was interested in books. I know I was interested in literature. And so to me that meant that meant reading. And then that meant, you know, possibly writing. But what I remember from the workshops was just this curiosity about how my colleagues sitting around the table, how a poem or story got made. And I think that was always more exciting and compelling for me than than my own work. You know, I think there are a number of of editors who who sort of travel a similar path. And I just like I like the chance to sort of, I guess, both eavesdrop on how a piece is made. And also as an editor, I think to see maybe the story that the that the writer knows that they’re writing. And then also I always feel like there’s this story underneath that maybe they’re sort of aware of, but hasn’t quite found its way up into the piece. And so part of what I enjoy as an editor is sort of finding how to bring that that second story out.
S3: So would you say that your practice as an editor was honed in those undergraduate workshop experiences, or was this something you came to understand about yourself when you were working at the Paris Review and was working at the purpose of your first job? That was your first job.
S2: Was my first job
S3: your first job? That’s incredible. So was this something that you sort of that you came to understand about yourself as you were doing it? Or do you think that it predated that tenure or the Paris Review?
S2: No, I didn’t. I mean, I don’t think I knew what being an editor meant until I was at the Paris Review. You know, I remember this was sort of back in the day when editing was still done, you know, on. On the printed page and one of the early parts of my job was to see how how those pieces were put together, and Paris Review, of course, famously has the writers at work interview series. And that was probably the most formative experience for me in terms of understanding what what an editor could do. There would be several conversations. We would have transcriptions, and you would sort of have these pages and pages and pages and you would sort of cut out different sections and piece them together. The term that was used at the magazine was you’d have a snake, kind of a snake of a manuscript,
S3: literal, like a physical manifestation. All of these strips chopped off. Yeah, it’s so interesting because, yes, you think about a conversation that happens in the pages of the Paris Review with a writer of real stature, you know, Lorrie Moore or Louise Erdrich. You know, there are great living writers. And what you see represented on the page could be like 15 percent of a really long conversation between that writer and the staffer or the freelancer from the magazine that unfolded over the course of like several visits. And yet that becomes the thing. And that’s I guess that’s what you’re saying is like that is where the hand of the editor lies. The editor has created that artifact,
S2: the editor, the editor with the author and and with the interviewer. It was, you know, very much that conversation on that back and forth. And there would be moments when the interviewer would have really captured something. They would have they would have asked a question or put the author at ease in a way that they would have said something that they might have been reluctant to share knowingly. And you could see in a in an editorial conversation sometimes the author trying to edit that out. But to say no, that’s the moment that’s you know, that’s this wonderful moment where we really get a sense of who the author is. And so I think just that that back and forth between all of the people was was a huge lesson for me in editing.
S3: So in 2005, you had left your first job. How long had you been at the Paris Review at that point?
S2: Had been there a while. It had been not quite a decade. And the magazine had been planning for its fiftieth anniversary.
S3: Got it. 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. How does one look, what are the first steps in a magazine is expensive, like what were the first steps that you took to conjure a new a whole new publication?
S2: It was a time sort of in publishing in general where, you know, if you remember, a lot of the commercial magazines were shut in their fiction department. There was this conversation, it felt to me that was going on about the value and necessity of fiction. And so I think in part, it felt to me like a moment to start a magazine that might challenge that and be a way to explore, 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 and starting a new magazine was a way to continue that conversation with them. And there were some, you know, some people who were interested in in small magazines and interested in and helping in terms of funding to make a new magazine possible. So really what it took was was at the very beginning was just announcing that we were going to do this. You know, that was it. Like you throw your hat over the fence to go, you have to go get it.
S3: I mean, it’s very gutsy even now to think about like, you know, you were still a pretty young editor. And, you know, I think maybe The Atlantic Monthly had announced that it was going to cease publishing fiction around that period. Is that right? They’ve since waffled on that. And I actually don’t know where they are right now, whether they’re publishing pictures or not. But I think they
S2: are and they’ve published they have published some great stories in the last
S3: year. So they are so bad they’ve decided that it matters again. But there was a period of time where, like, you know, for a long time it was like The New Yorker, you know, Harper’s, you know, the you know, all these magazines that no longer exists, like the Saturday Evening Post or something where where, you know, great American short fiction continue to be published. And but even now, thinking about, like, the temerity of you being in your mid thirties, early thirties, really, and saying like, oh, you know, what if the 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.
S2: You know, I think there have been a few moments when if I had stopped to to think about about it just makes sense. This is possible. I don’t know. But but I guess for me, the lucky thing was that I didn’t stop in and have that conversation with myself. It just felt like something that there was a moment to do it. I was I was curious about what kind of magazine we could make and didn’t really think beyond that. Just thought, you know, what would happen if we tried to do this well.
S3: And here we are 15 years later. Yes.
S2: So it worked out OK.
S3: Was your initial plan, did you have an initial plan that accounted for like a life span that 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 sort of feeling your way forward of each step?
S2: Very much. Just feeling our way forward at each step. I do have somewhere in the archives sort of an early scrap of paper with a, you know, a budget and and some plans. And I couldn’t have been more wrong now. So it was very much sort of figuring our way out as we went along. And we had, you know, a really good group of contributing editors who joined on early on a board who was engaged. And we all sort of figured it out together and pieced together as we went.
S3: You put this quarterly? No. So we try quarterly. Try quarterly, quarterly. So I’m so curious to understand, like. The business of producing three issues here, 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, you know, attending events or being out in the other public space, which is sort of book fairs and lectures and all of that stuff, like how is your time apportioned?
S2: All these years later? I still feel like I’m supposed to be editing all the time and reading submissions all the time. And that’s what this role that’s what I thought the role was, I think at the very beginning. And I’ve never you know, you never quite managed for that to be how a day goes or a week goes. So on a good day, you know, to maybe sort of the early morning is for the editing and the reading and the rest of the day is for the phone calls and the the plans and the working with the staff and the details like that. I mean, I’m sure it’s the same for you.
S3: I think that there’s maybe like an enduring fantasy about creative work, that it is this immersion and the pure labor of wrestling with the words and whether you’re the editor or the writer, but that the reality is slightly more complicated. Like sometimes you have to take your computer to the genius bar. Sometimes you have to, like, 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.
S2: Yeah. And they and they I think that they nourish each other. If you only if you only read you only wrote, you only edited each day. Every day. I think I think your talents would dissipate in some way.
S3: So a public space, as you mentioned, it seems like the founding of the magazine had something specific to do with fiction. You know, the magazine does publish poetry, does publish non-fiction. It does publishers, you know, works of art and sort of these pieces that almost feel unclassifiable, that are the kind of thing that I think the small literary magazine has always been adept at publishing the work that just doesn’t belong in other publications. But do you have, like, a personal feeling about fiction’s primacy in the pages or in fact in the culture?
S2: No, and I think one of the exciting things that’s happened in the years that we’ve done a public space is that those rigid divisions between genres have have blurred. And I think some of the most exciting work has been where those divisions are blurred. So I don’t I don’t think of it as a fiction magazine. I think of it as a I think of it as a collection of these disparate voices who are each finding their own form. And sometimes it takes a form that’s identifiably a poem and sometimes identifiably, you know, a short story. But but a lot of times it’s something something sort of somewhere in the middle.
S3: You mentioned try quarterly. And the discovery of that in your student days is kind of a eureka moment for you as a reader. Is quarterly no longer being published?
S2: It is still published. It’s now an online publication.
S3: It’s online. It’s online. And I think a handful of those make a living story. Quarterly is online now only I mean, you know, but what is what is that form? What is the small literary magazine? And like, how would you situate its significance? I mean, has it ever really been significant or has it always been kind of a niche concern?
S2: Well, I don’t think in this concern makes it not a significant concern. I think that the fact that it is the issue is what gives its value. And and, you know, a number of books that are and authors who are have made a significant impact on our literary culture. I think you can often trace them back to a literary magazine and that many of them are still closely connected with literary magazines as a place to, you know, experiment with a new idea or take some sort of risk that you couldn’t take in in a more mainstream publication. And I think they’re hugely valuable as those kinds of spaces. I guess I think of literary magazines or the ones that are most exciting to me where, you know, there’s an editor who has a very specific vision. And so you sort of feel that if you’re picking up the magazine, that you’re having a conversation with that with that editor. In some sense, whether it’s a magazine like, you know, Neun, which Diane Williams edits or a magazine vault that a poet named Gillian Connolly edits, you know, I think there are all of these. So for me, I think that that’s how I think of a literary magazine. And when I think of a public space alongside other literary magazines, it’s sort of all of these different editorial visions sort of sharing a space.
S3: I’m curious to hear from you the ways in which your task as an editor, not the fundraiser, not the person who is signing all the grant applications, but really when you’re talking about the text, the ways in which that’s creative and, you know, we often don’t know the names of the people who are editing our famous writers.
S2: I think for me, editing is a creative endeavor just in in the way that you’re paying attention and in the way that you’re sort of trying to. You’re trying to understand what the author’s vision is, what they’re aiming for, and you’re you’re you’re trying to do it in a way that’s pointing out something to them that maybe they haven’t noticed in their work. And that’s for me, that strikes me as a creative endeavor and and and an exciting and a fulfilling one.
S3: Do you think it requires the kind of not necessarily self effacement, but, you know, when a writer collects an award, it’s the writer who’s collecting the award, even if it’s for work that is understood that the you know, the editor could have been hugely influential in shaping that work. Is that just part of the bargain or is that just what it is?
S2: But it’s the author’s vision. I mean, yes. And there would not be a book. There would not be a, you know, a sentence without you know, your role is is to elevate and and encourage that. I mean, I think the self assessment comes in in that it is the it is the I mean, this is to the obvious, but it’s the author’s work and it’s not you aren’t trying to make it into the story you would have written if you were the writer. You’re trying to make it into the story that that’s the ideal or, you know, the the the truest version of what of what the author is trying to write. And if you forget that, if you start to think about it as the story, the version you would write, you know, I think then then then things get a little problematic.
S1: We’ll be back with more of your mom’s conversation with Brigid’s. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a question about getting down to work or what you can do to connect with an editor who gets you anything at all, send them to us at working at Slate dot com or give us a ring at three or four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcast. Now, let’s return to Roman’s conversation with Brigitte use.
S3: I wonder if. The editing of each individual issue of a public space is a kind of self-contained endeavor that, like the goal for each individual issue, is about a kind of balance for the whole and that you then move on to the next issue. Or is it always like an immersion in a particular piece and it’s sort of irrespective of which issue it’s being put into?
S2: It’s both, I would say I think there’s always a piece when you’re putting an issue together that feels like the center of the issue and then you sort of build build around that. And, you know, I think sometimes you’ll hear about how a short story writer thinks about putting the stories together in a collection. And I think for editors of a of a magazine, of a literary magazine, they’ll often talk about the thought that they give to how the pieces fit together and the way that you sequence them. And I’m not sure that that it’s anything that readers ever notice or often notice. But I think it helps us to sort of just to highlight what what we’re thinking about in the issue. And it’s kind of a way of focusing our attention.
S3: It’s not uncommon for an I’m looking at my shelves now to see if I have a great example. It’s not uncommon that the work that the general public may know as a book began its life in the pages of a small magazine. Are you conscious of. A responsibility is the editor of a small magazine to be kind of the the midwife for this work that could then ultimately become really significant in the culture that like if you may publish a story that’s a debut story by a writer who then goes on to publish a collection of short stories two years from now and becomes like really well known in a way that they simply can’t be when their publication track record is a bunch of small magazines.
S2: Well, we have a fellowship program for writers that is less about shepherding them through, you know, into a career and more about trying to be a place to support writers who are working a little bit apart from from the mainstream or for what for kind of what the current marketplace would be open to and to try to make an ongoing commitment to those writers in their work. I think we try to focus on supporting the writer, and I’m supporting what their vision is for their own work and helping that work find its readers. There are a couple of examples in the magazine’s history that that I still think you know a lot about. One is we published Jesmyn Ward’s debut story, a phenomenal story called Capitol Hill. And I think that was in around 2007. And she’s talked in interviews sort of about the struggles she had at the start of her career for her her work to find an audience. You know, and of course, that’s hard to imagine now because she’s had such a huge impact on on our on our literary culture.
S3: That’s quite a that’s quite a legacy on your part. That’s quite a legacy on the magazine’s part of being just one word is probably one of our most significant writers working today. And it’s not. And again, I’m not talking about money necessarily, but impact or significance, cultural significance. I don’t think you could I can’t think of a writer of her generation. Who’s comparable in some ways, that must feel great. That must feel very satisfying.
S2: I mean, it sounds fine, but it’s a beautiful story and that we got to, you know, that we got to publish a work that that felt meaningful and valuable. And it would be it would be as valuable as we know still is if she hadn’t gone on to win two National Book Awards. But it’s interesting to me to just remember what what that career path was for her, you know? And then there are writers who, of course, who published the first story and then that sort of immediately launches them into their their professional life. And and that’s wonderful to see, too.
S3: I mean, as like I had an undergraduate experience, not unlike yours, like even actually in high school. I worked at a bookstore in suburban Washington, D.C., where that had, you know, as most bookstores did back then, like a pretty robust periodical section. And we had the literary magazines. No one ever bought them. So I would always take them or they were meant to be returned and we would strip them and I would take them home and read, you know, American Scholar or The Antioch Review or I mean, I can’t even remember some of the names of them, but and I certainly read work by incredibly well-known people. But I also certainly read work by, you know, just working writers who maybe never published a book or published one book that I was unaware of. And, you know, and I can still remember some of that work. And that’s sort of the joy of discovery that is not always possible when you’re only access to what’s happening in art is what is being published commercially.
S2: There’s some there’s less I want to say less pressure. In a way, as a reader, when you’re reading through a literary magazine, there’s there’s something just a little bit more relaxed about it. All the writers are taking a risk and, you know, they’re doing something fun. And, you know, you can have fun leafing through it and finding a voice that that excites you. And, you know, another piece that makes no sense to you or confuses you or confound you. And like, that’s all that’s all sort of wonderful. And there’s no pressure that it has to be it has to be more than that.
S3: But you’re committed to the model of producing three times a year, this beautiful couple hundred pages bound in a beautiful jacket like that is what a public space is fundamentally. Is that right?
S2: Yes, that is fundamentally what a public spaces. Yes, I like that contained experience. I like saying in this period of time we created this object and we want to we want to put this object into your hands. To me, that’s a very different reading experience than than if we became an online publication. And for me, the print the object is important. It’s an important part of our work.
S3: Do you find that young readers are willing to go there with you? Do you find that there’s still like is there still that same nerdy 22 year old that you once I was still out.
S2: I absolutely believe that there is maybe even nerdier. Yes. And with new ideas and a huge imagination. One of the programs at a public space has been part of the Whiting Foundation, which is known for the awards that they give out to writers. Started a prize a few years ago for literary magazines and a public space, received a prize for it in the inaugural year. But one of the things that they do is that they bring together the editors of some of the various prize winning magazines every year and some, you know, so there are some young editors who are just who have just, you know, created these these magazines and and print magazines. And the way that they’re thinking about what a literary magazine can be and can do makes me think that, yes, absolutely. There is excited about literary magazines as we are.
S3: I wonder where in the life cycle of the next issue you are and whether you feel like. The work that you’re going to be publishing that readers are going to read in the next issue, which will come out at the end of this year, and it was in July, oh, July. So you have a you have an issue coming in the summer, like how tight is the relationship between what you see in the pages of the magazine and what you see in the world around you? Are you seeing art reflects the cultural moment that we’re just emerging from?
S2: I mean, inevitably, it’s reflecting the moment we’re just emerging from, but I think not in the ways that we. I don’t think we’re quite aware of the ways it is reflected in this moment, I think it’ll take us a couple of years to look back at the pieces that we’re publishing now and say, oh, that’s what we were thinking about. That’s sort of how how this experience shaped us. I mean, are you asking in part like are we getting a lot of stories, submissions about the pandemic and about what what the events of this past year have felt like for us? And the answer is yes. But those are probably not as interesting as the other types of pieces that we’re getting, that we’re getting and that writers probably think don’t have anything to do with this current moment. But I think in some unknown but hugely important way are capturing this experience for us.
S3: I mean, that makes sense to me because you’re not in the business of making individual books. Right. So that, like a novelist may be determining whether or not her realist’s romance novel set in 2020 should have protagonists wearing masks. But what you’re seeing, the poetry or the stories that are being produced by people who are actually living through that, whether or not they’re writing about someone wearing a mask, the work is going to contain on some level. Yeah, I think so.
S2: I think so. But I don’t think it comes from the work when when the writer thinks they’re writing about this and, you know.
S3: Yes, I think it’s good to do it. Yeah. This goes back to your practice as an editor. You’re sort of like, yeah, analytical practice almost. Almost. It’s almost like when you describe that at the beginning, your approach to helping a writer understand something that she may not even understand yet about her own project.
S2: Or I mean, I think I think does understand but hasn’t quite somehow it’s it’s sort of in their blindspot. Yeah. How do you feel? It’s it’s influenced. You’re the fiction that you’re writing this year.
S3: I mean, I think it’s as you say, it’s an unknowable I mean, it’s going to be there. You know, Trump is going to be there. The pandemic is going to be there just as Brexit was going to be there for writers in the UK. Right. Like it’s all going to be there. And Al Smith is writing about Brexit specifically or explicitly. That’s the project. But Alex Smith’s contemporaries are also writing about it in some other way. That may be less clear. And it’s the kind of thing that’s only clear when you look at it in the rearview mirror, I think. Yes, you know, yeah. Just as we think about 9/11, like, I think there’s no I’m not sure that there’s a single great work that is explicitly about 9/11, but I think there’s a huge, vast body of work that is grappling with the aftereffects of 9/11.
S2: Yes. Yeah.
S3: Brigid Hughes, thank you so much for joining us today.
S2: Thank you so much, Remon. It was a treat. A pleasure.
S1: Vermont, I have to say, that felt like the perfect match of interviewer and interviewee like you clearly have a great love for the specific kind of work that appears in the small magazines. And it really feels like a gift that there are devoted editors, very self-conscious, saying this work may not be commercial and in a strict capitalist marketplace, it probably wouldn’t get published or it definitely wouldn’t get published. But we believe it’s important and it will be meaningful to readers and that those readers deserve support. What a wonderful vocation. What a thing to put into the world.
S3: I couldn’t agree more. I think it’s hugely important work. You know, the markets can’t be the only metric by which we measure artistic excellence. And, you know, there’s no way for a reader to purchase one poem or one story. And so the idea that a poet or a story writer would have to build up a huge body of work in order to enter the market is sort of flawed. Also, many of the writers who we now consider canonical were really successful, like Truman Capote or James Baldwin showing up on TV shows. But, you know, many of them worked in comparative obscurity and a writer or any kind of artist, for that matter, may not reach the peak of their powers until late in their life after like decades of publishing poems and small magazines, you know, these magazines are a part of the culture and we are richer for it.
S1: I really appreciated your questions about how Brigid learned to edit. Like she said, people don’t or even can’t go to school to edit, to learn how to edit. And I would add my opinion that although you can learn something by editing your own work, most people learn how to edit well by themselves being edited by great editors. I have learned a huge amount from some of the editors at Slate and elsewhere. You know, people like Jack Shafer, who was my first real editor, and Josh Levine, who always makes my work at least five times better. And I don’t have a lot in common with those guys demographically. But there’s a kind of a mind meld quality they got when I was trying to say and they help me say it better. Do you agree that editing is something that you learn about intuitively by working with sympatico editors that help you do it better?
S3: I wish it were possible for there to be formal instruction, but I’m not sure that there is. There’s also not an apprenticeship model, because what you’re talking about is almost like you happen to meet someone who’s a good editor. You have the experience of being edited by them and you learn something from that. You know, I think the ability to edit in the end must be sort of a proclivity like having perfect pitch. You know, some people just know how to take another person’s words and make them sharper or press them into more useful service of what that writer wants to say. And I’m really lucky, you know, like you, I’ve worked with some truly wonderful editors who have sort of raised the bar and helped me understand what I can expect of an editor. Megan Lynch, who’s the publisher at Flatiron Books, was the editor on my first books. She’s an absolute genius. Hell Announcements or Birmingham, who took over my third book from Megan, are both so different in their approach from one another and from their predecessor. But they I learned so much from that experience of working with them. And, you know, again, it’s like I can’t go to school to learn this. Yeah. So I learn it by sort of absorbing it from the people who are working with me.
S1: So I was also struck by bridges stories about starting out when editing still happened exclusively on paper. You know, the snake that she talked about, that’s a fabulous image. Do you think that the format affects the process, do you think? And do you think you get edited differently when you’re working on paper digitally in an audio setting? I mean, Cameron, our producer, he’s definitely committing acts of editing when he turns our rambling conversations into our beautifully precise and polished podcasts.
S3: I read Cameron’s editing is like, you know, like multidimensional, like to talk about. I can deal with words on a page, but I don’t know about, like, sounds in space. Like that’s a whole other level of magic. You know, there is something really funny. And almost mid century when Bridget is describing a scroll of paper being assembled by taping snippets of transcript into a long, cohesive whole, that is an analog process. And I’m just old enough that I when I when I do have to edit things, whether it’s myself or other people, I have to do it on paper. I have to do it holding a pencil in my hand. It’s really very difficult for me to work in Google Docs as all the kids these days like to, don’t they?
S1: Just though, I find you your question about the variety of tasks the editors of literary magazines have to do on a daily and weekly basis. Really perceptive. Like it seems to me that just as there are people whose talents are particularly suited to editing or writing, as we’ve been discussing, there are also people. Bridget is clearly one who have a variety of talents, they can fundraise, they can manage people, they can communicate with the delicate creatures known as writers, and they can do all of the other business and strategic and logistical tasks as well as editing. That is a really specific niche within a niche.
S3: Yes, I think that we have this kind of romantic image of like the intellectual editor holding forth about passive voice or about a specific word choice. And that’s great. That’s great. But the truth is that editors also need to be able to have conversations with an art director. You know, they need to be able to talk to the people at the printing house. They need to be able to manage logistics. And and if you are working at a nonprofit as Birgitta’s, you have to be able to write grant applications or ask rich people for money. You know, that is all hard work. And each of those things is a skill in itself. And that a public space is 15 years old is testament to Brigid’s ability to do more than just know when a story is good or when a sentence is good.
S1: I mean, OK, we haven’t really talked about writing for these literary magazines. You mentioned a couple of stories that you have published are going to be publishing. But I must concede that since I rarely read them, I have what is surely a ridiculous idea that most of the content comes from like freshly minted MFA’s. Please correct. What is surely a silly misconception.
S3: You know, to be sure, you’re probably going to find stories by people who are just out of them, a few programs. But some of those writers are the more exciting writers working today. I think about a writer like Jamal Brinkley, who was publishing in the liberal magazines a couple of years ago, turned those stories into a collection and then was nominated for the National Book Award. You know, you might also find writers whose names you recognize who have like a slender story that doesn’t quite fit inside of a book yet, or they’ve sent it to this magazine because they’re friendly with the editor. But the real hope, honestly, is that you find work with someone you’ve never heard of and that you fall in love. You know, many years ago, in a now defunct literary magazine called Tin House, I read a story by a writer named Tara Eyssen. I don’t know her. I’ve never met her, but I loved that story so much. I remember her name to this day. I remember that story. It was called Ball. And I remember that I sent the other fan note, which is not something I do a lot, but I read the story and I was like, the story is amazing. And I think I sent her an email and then I read her novel, you know, when I when it came out. And so it’s the possibility of discovery. That’s the promise of the magazine. Right. And, you know, reading is always its own reward.
S1: Raymont, your love affair with reading is one of the loveliest in history. It’s downright inspirational. You will keep proselytizing for reading as long as you have breath.
S3: I know. I hope so.
S1: Listeners, we hope you have enjoyed this episode of working. If you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you a sleepless plus pitch slate. Plus members get benefits like zero odds on any slate podcasts, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Danny Laboris new show, Big Mood, Little Mood I. But I also hope you would like to support the work we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month, and to learn more, you should go to Slate Dotcom Slash Working.
S3: Plus, thank you to Bridget Hughes for being our guest this week. And as always, thanks to our fantastic producer Cameron DROs. We’ll be back next week for Isaac Butler’s conversation with Joy McMillan, an editor on the Amazon series, The Underground Railroad, and several other project with Barry Jenkins. Until then, get back to work. Hayzlett plus listeners, here’s a little something extra from my conversation with Bridget Hughes just for you. The literary magazine seems to rely, just as the field seems to rely a bit on like a sense of community and like for the magazine, for the editors to be able to go to, you know, the Brooklyn Book Festival, for example, and be able to really see the readership. So what is the last year been like and how has the magazine adapted to figuring out what the next 15 years will look like?
S2: Yeah, well, I think surprised a little bit by all the new ways we found, I think, to stay connected this past year. You know, movie theater, shut down, theater shut down. You couldn’t go see a concert, but you could you could read a book. You could you know, and thank goodness for all of the independent booksellers who really worked wonders this past year, I think, to find ways to deliver to deliver books to us. So I think a lot of people my sense is a lot of people found their way back to books this year and back to literary magazines. And so I think the question for us in the year to come is how do you how do you hold onto that and how do you make books, you know, stay a part of people’s cultural lives as they start to return to the theater and to movies and places?
S3: Yeah, I feel I, I have felt that as a you know, I know a lot of people talked about a lack of attention span for a book, but I’ve felt a renewed I’ve read more I think because I can’t read the news. I’m just like, so especially when the election was happening, I was like, I just need to read a novel. I can’t you know, it’s like a great reminder of the primacy of the book in my own life. Yeah, I would love if you could tell me the story of about Helland and how you met her.
S2: You know, I never met her
S3: at her work. How are you going to work?
S2: Yeah, it was it was just one of those afternoons of browsing in a bookstore and the the one dollar stand cart. It was a cover that sort of caught my eye. It had a blurb from Sorbello which caught my eye. And I’d never I’d never heard this writer’s name before and opened up to just a random page and was was struck by the writing. And it was a it was her her memoir W three. I have I still I still have the one book with the sticker on and I brought it home. And, you know, as you do these days, Googled to see who could this Betty Helland was. Why hadn’t I come across her work before and couldn’t find a whole lot. And just in one of those ways where sometimes when you can’t find something, you become absolutely determined to find it. And so we took a couple of weeks. I had the whole staff at a public space doing research and trying to figure out who she was and what other work she had published. I think early on learned that she had one of one of the early MacArthur genius grants. And then we eventually found her son, who was a philosophy professor in Oklahoma, and he said that he knew his mother was still writing and she had some some work, published work. And, you know, he would he would look and and send what he could find the next day. And it turned out that he found some essays and short stories and a collection of postcards from Sorbello. And just each piece that he sent made you sort of made you more interested and more curious to read what else was out there. So we spent, you know, a few months trying to do research and published a portfolio of her work in the magazine and then wanted to bring her books back into print. And that sort of was what launched the idea for doing our own our own book print in print as a way, as a way to do the books.
S3: And now we can all read W3, her memoir of being hospitalized in a mental institution in Chicago in the nineteen fifties.
S2: The nineteen sixty eight.
S3: Yeah, nineteen sixties, the late 1960s. And it’s an extraordinary book, it’s an extraordinary book and it feels so contemporary. I read it last fall when it came out and I just it is, it is a memoir but it has a real novelistic quality and it seems to be talking about the contemporary moment, even though she’s talking about a period. Forty years, fifty years in the past. It’s a really it’s an extraordinary book. What a find. Yeah. What a
S2: find. She. That great sentence in one of her short stories about taking a bus through the city and not being able to read a book when she’s on the bus because she feels that she should be paying attention to the world around her. And she says, but paying attention to what? And I feel like all of her work is sort of a way of of asking and answering that question, including three.
S3: That’s about it for this week. Thanks again for your Slate plus membership. So.