After a too-long hiatus, SixQuestionSaturday returns. In this episode, contributing editor & Choir member William James sits down with Barrelhouse non-fiction editor Tom McAllister to talk shop, and learn how your favorite home for ‘pop flotsam & cultural jetsam’ brings readers some of the best in literature today.
So, Barrelhouse has been going at it for over a decade now – what do you think is the secret to that kind of staying power? What have you figured out over the last eleven years that makes things easier now than they were in 2004?
TM: I think the biggest thing for us is that it’s been a priority from the start to not take ourselves too seriously. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, and I don’t want to downplay all the work we put into it, but from the start, it’s been really important for Barrelhouse to produce good work while maintaining a sense of humor. Sometimes what this means is we get together for editorial meetings and probably have too many drinks and make important decisions about the future of the journal at last call. Sometimes it means feeling free to email the others with subject lines like “a dumb weird idea I had” and knowing that even if the idea is dumb and weird, they’ll all at least think about it. And maybe if it’s dumb and weird enough, we’ll run with it (e.g., our Ghosts of Christmas Future series from 2014 in which we ran a bunch of weird fanfic pieces about characters in holiday Christmas specials). Sometimes it’s bringing on new editors, adding new life to the whole project and watching as this thing evolves from whatever it was when it started. In the past year, we’ve added Erin Fitzgerald as our Online Editor and Killian Czuba as our art director. Before that, we added several extremely overqualified people like Katherine Hill and Sarah Strickley as assistant editors. Before that, it was making me the NF editor. And there were a bunch of other lineup changes and direction changes and everything else over the years.
All of which is to say: I think we’ve done a good job of maintaining our core aesthetic while still embracing change. Plus, we have a lot of fun. As soon as this thing stops being fun, that’s probably when we shut it down.
WJ: Riffing off of that first question; what were some of the growing pains that Barrelhouse experienced in the beginning? Is there anything that you would do differently if you had the opportunity to go back and start all over?
TM: I wasn’t one of the founders (they were: Dave Housley, Joe Killiany, Aaron Pease, and Mike Ingram), but I’ve been around long enough that I think I can still give a decent answer. The answer is this: money. Barrelhouse almost went broke a couple times. Or did go broke, depending how you define that. There was credit card debt. There was at least one editorial meeting during which some editors were trying to figure out how to tell their wives they’d blown a ton of money on this literary magazine. Money is still always a concern– as it is with any journal– but we’ve stabilized and come up with a few reliable ways to make sure we’re covering costs, paying writers, and everything else.
The other struggle– again, a familiar one– was just getting people to know we exist. I still don’t know how that works, except maybe somehow by using Vine?
We’ve made dozens of missteps from day one, but thankfully none of them have been disasters. The biggest things I think we would change would have been making better use of our web presence earlier (we tried, and failed, and tried again and failed again, to be bloggers, and then the site has floundered through many incarnations), but otherwise, we’re pretty happy with where even those missteps have led us.
WJ: The world in general seems to change at a fairly alarming rate, and I would imagine that publishing today looks a good bit different than it did even ten years ago. What are some changes/adaptations you’ve had to make to your editorial process in order to stay up to date? What’s different today from how things were when you started?
TM: In the pre-Submittable days, every debate was conducted by email, or sometimes in chat rooms. Because I guess we are ancient. So Submittable has made our lives a thousand times easier. Probably that’s one reason we’ve adopted a more fragmented editing approach. In the beginning, the idea was that choices had to be unanimous, and, as you can imagine, there are still some debates from the early days that are dredged up at every meeting. Now, we’ve all gotten busier and we all trust one another enough to just hand over the reins on a given project. Issue 13, for example, was Mike Ingram’s work entirely. He pitched the idea of a comedy issue, not knowing for sure where it would lead him, and we said: sure, go for it. He read and responded to all submissions, figured out the art, etc. For Issue 15, I’m completely in charge of all submissions for our special riots theme, and Joe is handling all fiction because Dave ran fiction in 14. There’s no set system, but we’ve grown into a much more streamlined approach.
The other thing that’s changed is design. When we started, we had a pretty unique looking journal. Lots of other indie journals quickly caught up to us and then lapped us and then we had to start playing catch up. This is one reason we added Killian as our art director. A couple years ago, we realized that small presses had gotten so great at design (see Hobart Curbside Splendor for two examples) that we had to really devote more attention to that area. And now we have “Macho Man” Randy Savage on the cover of our magazine.
WJ: Barrelhouse publishes a biannual print issue (and pays contributors as well), hosts regular content online, maintains a regular reading series, and holds online writing workshops – all without funding from any major press or university affiliation, and without charging reading fees for submission. How is it that you’re able to do so much, while still staying independent? Has Barrelhouse always been such a huge, multifaceted entity, or did you add new elements as you grew?
TM: I guess I already previewed part of this answer. Barrelhouse started as just the magazine. But all of the editors have always been really invested in the community-building aspects of the small press world. So Dan and Joe have established a real presence in the DC area (our original home base) and we’ve all done our part to just be good contributing members of this small community. Mostly this comes down to people throwing crazy ideas out there and seeing what happens. The policy generally comes down to this: if you’re really into it, and you think you can make it work, give it a shot, and we’ll have your back. So when Mike talked to me about doing a podcast, a medium I’d never listened to at all, I said sure. Why not? Three years later, Book Fight is a thriving concern with loyal listeners and everything else. When Dave suggested we could run a better regional writing conference than the ones we’d been attending, we gave it a shot. Seven years later, it’s a staple of the DC lit scene and it’s expanded to Pittsburgh. We sustain it all through frenzied email chains, lots of help from our friends and spouses, and, again, because we have a lot of fun doing it. The workshops and conference also are now our primary revenue generators. We share about 50% of the gross profits from each with the workshop leaders and the participating presses at the conferences, and the rest of that money goes toward printing the magazine and paying contributors. We did these as an experiment first, but then they became the most reliable way of keeping the actual magazine itself going.
WJ: I’d like to know more about this “gap between serious art and pop culture” that Barrelhouse bridges. What does that gap mean to you? How do you define that relationship between fine art and pop culture, and what makes a particular piece a good fit for Barrelhouse’s mission on that front?
TM: I don’t think it’s a revolutionary idea these days, but when the other guys started Barrelhouse, they felt like there wasn’t a place for literary writers who unironically loved dumb things like hair metal, Patrick Swayze films, bad Lifetime movies, and other so-called “guilty pleasures.” Too many places wanted writers to separate their Serious Writer Persona from the actual pop culture they consumed; Barrelhouse was founded with the idea that we would be a home for great writing that embraced that kind of stuff. Not that writing in Barrelhouse had to be about Ed Asner or Thin Lizzy or Barry Bonds; it’s just that if you happened to have a series of poems about bathing Ed Asner or an essay about being biracial and traveling to the grave of Thin Lizzy’s lead singer or an essay about how steroid hysteria in sports is a metaphor for the bloating of American culture, then we wanted to be the place for you. The first book we published was an anthology of essays called Bring The Noise, in which we collected our favorite essays in BH history, plus a few new ones. In the introduction to that collection, I wrote this:
You can be serious about something without being boring. Some of these things we care about are ludicrous; think about the concept of projecting forty-foot-high images of Ashton Kutcher on a wall and asking people to pay ten dollars for the right to see him fall in (and then out, and then back in) love. Think about how stupid it is to sit on the couch for twelve hours every Sunday and form personal attachments to strangers simply because they wear the colors of the team you support and temporarily work in the same city as you.
The risk in writing seriously about pop culture is that if you do it incorrectly, if you lack self-awareness, if you refuse to acknowledge the inherent absurdity in many of the things we care about, then you can sound like you’re auditioning for a part as the stuffy professor in a gritty reboot of Revenge of the Nerds.
The best writing about pop culture knows that this stuff is important, but not that important. It knows we can be intelligent and insightful and demanding but still have a laugh now and then.
WJ: What does the process look like for you, from the time a piece of nonfiction (or poetry, or fiction, etc.) comes through your submission portal to the time it appears in an issue? Any tips you can give a first-time submitter before they hit that Send button on Submittable?
TM: It can be slow, sometimes. Since we’re an all-volunteer staff and several of our editors now have children, not to mention our own writing projects, it’s basically a built-in part of the process for us to be behind schedule. Our official line is that we publish two issues per year, but anyone who can do math can see that we’ve been around 11 years and have 14 issues (with #15 coming sometime in fall?). This isn’t because of procrastination, necessarily; we’ve had to change printers so many times I don’t even know who prints this thing anymore. We’ve struggled with the art in so many issues because none of us are good at visual arts and design, so the layout can be painstaking (this is a big reason we’ve finally added a full-time art director, because we expect that Killian will really streamline that process). In the end, it usually turns out to be something like one issue every 8.5 months.
As for submissions, I try to get responses to people within 2 months, because I know the misery of the endless wait as well as anyone. When I was querying agents a couple years ago, it took 11 months for some of them to get back to me, and I still sat at my computer like an idiot refreshing every 20 seconds just in case. That said, sometimes I fail at that. Right now, I have a bunch of essay subs that I’ve been sitting on for a long time while I work through riots submissions. I often read them in big chunks: 20-30 at a time, before I have to take a break from staring at the laptop screen. With the specificity of our NF calls — essays have to be related to pop culture in some way– I can often cut about 20% of the submissions right away because they don’t fit what we’re doing. They’re sometimes very well written, but it’s an academic paper on Herodotus or something, and we’re just not the right place for that. Then the other submissions will take much more time. Often, I’ll mark an essay as a maybe with a note to re-read. But I’ve found that the essays I love, the ones that end up in Barrelhouse, are the ones that I’m still thinking about two days later. Sometimes I’ll go back to re-read one and realize I don’t remember anything about it; it had been good and skillful but not in any way memorable (to me). That’s an important sign, I think.
Because, in the end, we’re trying to make a magazine for us, filled with the kind of work we love. And since we’re independent, we’re free to fill it up with whatever we want, and why would I ever want to include an essay that I don’t personally love? So the essays that turn up in the issues are ones that I just can’t get out of my head for whatever reason.
So, tips: write something really great and memorable that lodges itself in my head and maybe changes the structure of my brain and won’t let me ever forget it.
Other tip: don’t freak out about the cover letter. Some people get really intense about cover letters. Keep it simple. 3-5 sentences. Don’t be cute or quirky. Your only job is to sound like a sane person. Fake it if you have to.
+ + + + +
Tom McAllister is the non-fiction editor of Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. His first novel will be published by Algonquin in 2016 and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, Unstuck, Sundog Lit, and some other places. Follow him on Twitter at @t_mcallister
William James is a poet, aging punk rocker, & train enthusiast from Manchester, NH. His poems can be found in various journals, anthologies, and punk zines, but are most easily accessible at williamjamespoetry.com. Catch up with him on Twitter @thebilljim