New & Massive: The Rumpus

Posted by @ 12:16 pm on February 5th, 2009

Fifteen years ago Sheila Schwartz wrote her first novel. In November 2008, four months before its release, she succumbed to ovarian cancer. Her husband, Dan Chaon, wants to tell you about the new book by Sheila Schwartz.

Schwartz is one of those writers who you’ve probably never heard of, and who, but for the dice of fate might just as easily have become a household name. USA Today named her first book of stories, Imagine a Great White Light, one of the best books of the year of 1991. (Actually, if you think about it, USA Today talking about a book of stories at all is amazing in and of itself–if it was tougher than a mountain-climb then, it’d probably take two miracles now.) Anyway, her debut novel, Lies Will Take You Somewhere–which in a just world would never have had to be described as “posthumous”–is out this month from Etruscan Press. In “What Happened To Sheila,” her husband Dan Chaon guides us through his wife’s life and works, and recounts for us the delightful story of their courtship, when he was “an undergraduate student, and she was a first time teacher, straight out of Stanford…” Chaon writes: “I know I’m only one of many of her students who fell madly in love with her, but I happened to be lucky.”

It’s an incredible story, and it seems to me emblematic of the kind of stellar, unique work that The Rumpus is committed to publishing, so after you click over there and read it, click back over this way and read my Q&A with editor Stephen Elliott, which you can find right after the jump. We talk about the impetus for founding the site, what’s missing from the mainstream blogosphere, and the challenges that promising web-projects like his (and ours!) face and how to overcome them or die trying. Plus, you know, other awesome stuff too.

Stephen Elliott.

To begin at the beginning, what inspired you to start The Rumpus? Related to that, can you tell me a bit about the process of putting it together—recruiting Moody and Stahl, for example?

Mostly I started The Rumpus because I wanted a site like The Rumpus to go to online. I had finished my newest book and was between projects. Because of that I was online more and I was checking sites that are frequently updated like Gawker and the Huffington Post. Maybe if I had seen HTMLgiant I wouldn’t have started The Rumpus.

Also, I wanted to do some editing. I was all written out. I was actually talking to Arianna Huffington about joining the Huffington Post. I had all these ideas, but then I thought, why am I giving her all my ideas? Most of it, stuff like covering books that have been out more than six months but didn’t get a lot of coverage, was stuff I knew wasn’t going to happen there anyway. It became obvious I’d have to do it myself. Plus, I’m not capable of working for someone else. I’ve been fired twelve times.

One of the things that strikes me about The Rumpus is that even though it covers books/music/art/film/politics/sex/media/other, there seems to be what I would call a very healthy bias towards the literary. I noticed that the Danny Goldberg Q&A, for example, is “about” music, but is occasioned by his having a book out. Is this “angle” the result of conscious effort, or more the result of circumstance?

Can I answer both? We are still developing our identity. We also have a literary bent. We love books. We’re mostly writers. One of the things about The Rumpus is we care very much about writing. We’ll publish things that aren’t newsworthy in any way, just because the writing is good. And yeah, the Danny Goldberg was occasioned by his book, which is how I heard about him. But in fact, Danny Goldberg would be fascinating anytime, with or without a book. But I read and enjoyed his book quite a bit, and that’s why I wanted to interview him.

You’ve edited a number of anthologies [most recently: Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica], and have published plenty of nonfiction, but have you ever run or worked on a magazine before? If so, how is this project different from previous ones, and in any case, how are you finding the experience?

I have never run a magazine before. It’s like having a job. I have to work on it every day, usually for many many hours (except Sunday, when I’m in church. just kidding, I don’t go to church, except Sunday when I’m involved in some elaborate black magic/sex ritual).

I feel responsible for The Rumpus. We try to update the site fifteen times every weekday and a few times on the weekend. So we’re updating continually, which is kind of the “internet rules.” But I want every update to be really good. For example, I don’t want to link to anything mediocre. A lot of our updates are in the Around The Web section. There’s so much great stuff on the Internet, why would anybody link to something mediocre, or only kind of interesting?

So yeah, I find the experience energizing and consuming and draining. And I love it. I love that something great happens every day. When you write a book you only get to celebrate every two years, but every day some great piece of writing comes in. And the people working with me are amazingly talented and fun.

One problem that all grassroots publishing ventures face (HTMLGiant deals with this regularly) is that if you want to produce something high-quality that’s worth people’s time, you really have to treat it like a job–except it isn’t a job, it’s volunteer work. For a writer, the odds are good that you’re already doing one un- or under-paid job: writing. I think this is why so many promising web-projects end up declining in quality or going dark. Does The Rumpus have a sustainability plan? Is it set up–or aspiring toward a point–where editing this magazine is your and your staff’s actual day jobs?

Editing the magazine is my full time job. I work on it all day long. The short term plan is that I make enough money through events like ourNew York Launch Party and our pre-launch party in San Francisco. I basically just need to make enough to live, and I live very cheaply. I don’t have a car and I share a one-bedroom apartment. If we can make more money than that than I can spread it around to the writers and volunteers. But I would take The Rumpus down or significantly slow down the frequency before letting it become mediocre.

It seems like many discussions in the arts lately are about (or strongly informed by) a “where do we go from here?” and/or “what comes next?” It’s explicit in certain things you’ve published already, like the “publishing subway map,” and in Moody’s introductory post on his music blog, about the death of the album as a form, but really these questions and anxieties about the possibly-already-here-future of the arts seem like part of The Rumpus’s DNA. That’s not a question, I’m now realizing…

There’s so much unknown right now. But in many ways The Rumpus is working off a very old model, as is HTMLgiant. A group of writers starting a cool literary journal, like McSweeney’s or The Paris Review, where you have great writing and you raise just enough money to publish. I mean, has anybody ever made a living writing for McSweeney’s or The Paris Review? But these are great literary journals and people want to participate in this kind of a conversation. The difference for us, as I mentioned, is playing by the rules of the Internet, which require frequent updates, aggregating content, linking out, etc.

The site went live a while ago, but “officially launched” at the end of January. I was thinking about this in light of some of your comments elsewhere on the site: one, about how books usually show up in stores a month or so before their release dates, and two about how The Rumpus will review what it feels like, when it feels like it.

Other than mainstream movies, which still do-or-die on opening weekend, it seems like all publishing is moving from a big-debut top-down approach toward a more grassroots bottom-up model: major houses buy self-published books and re-release them, bands put out their own CD and *then* get signed. Is the notion of a “release date” itself an outmoded concept? What if book reviews were pegged not to a title’s release date, but to six months later, and didn’t try to set the tone for a book’s reception so much as chronicle its first half-year of life?

That’s an interesting idea. I’d have to think more on that. But as far as books coverage, part of the problem is the echo chamber of the major Internet magazine. They’re chasing clicks so they always want to focus on the big story. I’m talking here about The Huffington Post, Gawker, The Daily Beast, Slate, Salon, etc. I don’t mean this as a criticism of their quality, but they’re all writing about the same things: a plane crash in the Hudson, Obama’s sex life, Britney Spears. They’ve all got their own take, but this way of covering stories filters down to books coverage. So books that don’t already have a huge push are quickly ignored. That leaves a giant space for us and for others because there’s this lake of culture between Arts And Letters Daily and The Huffington Post which very few people are writing about outside the blogs. The blogs are great, but this stuff should be covered in a magazine format as well, and it’s still very early for Internet magazines, I think.

For us, if a book hasn’t been out for more than a year it’s considered a new book. Treated exactly the same as a book that’s been out two weeks and is a big best seller. If it’s been out more than a year we’ll still write about it, but then we’re doing an appreciation, which is different than a review. A good example would be Steve Almond writing about John Williams’s Stoner.

What should we look for at The Rumpus in the coming months? Any forthcoming stories or regular features you’re particularly excited about?

Well, I love our blogs. Bad Mommy by Kaui Hart Hemmings, Post Young by Jerry Stahl, Swinging Modern Sounds by Rick Moody, The Eyeball, BitchCraft, etc. You’ll want to stay up on them. We’ll be doing a big interview with Dave Eggers soon. There’s a lot of great reviews scheduled. You can also look forward to us finding our voice, and then losing it, and then finding again. I think you’ll see us making a lot of missteps. But you know, it’s an iterative process.

Other than The Rumpus, what else are you working on? When can we start looking forward to a new Stephen Elliott-authored or -edited book?

Well, I have a new book coming out. It’s edited, it’s got a cover, but it’s not coming until September of this year. It’s called The Adderall Diaries, it’s being published by Graywolf, and it’s half memoir/half true-crime. Also, I’m running an organization that’s trying to keep the businesses on Valencia in San Francisco locally owned. You can check that out at Stop American Apparel 988 Valencia. I should be done with that after the vote goes to the planning commission this week. Which I’m looking forward to. Because 14 hours of organizing and 14 hours of editing The Rumpus has me at negative four hours a day. And that’s no good.

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